Transformation and Healing After Trauma, Loss and Grief

My Mythic Garden

A blog by author and trauma expert Gary W. Reece, Ph.D.

Gary Reece, Ph.d.

I first saw a young man, call him George, 30 years ago in a clinic. His parents brought him to see me because they had become very frightened of his behavior. He was withdrawn, had stopped eating and apparently told them he was having frightening violent fantasies. He told me during the interview that those fantasies had to do with killing both his mother and father. He also disclosed that as part of the violent thoughts he was reading “Helter Skelter” the book about the Manson murders. George was thin, trembling, and having trouble organizing his thoughts: in my estimation a real danger of further deterioration in his hold on reality. So I recommended a nearby psychiatric hospital and admitted him for two months.

Why am I thinking about George, now? Because there has been a deluge of stories breaking in the 6’oclock news about various incidents of violent-rage related incidents. Just last night, a man went on a rampage and shot up the neighborhood, killed 3 people and then capped it off with a prolonged car chase where he randomly shot at other drivers and ended up being killed. Children killing their parents, and vice versa, road rage, domestic violence, jealous rages where a spurned lover killed his rival, and a policeman going on a rampage; killing those responsible for his dismissal. The list goes on and on: And just this week, two incidents of students who killed their teachers.

Fist fights, gun fights, rampages, is there a qualitative difference between these incidents?
There appears to be a lot of enraged people out there. What’s driving these episodes? Are these individuals acting out fantasies we have all had at one time or another, or is there more to it? No, I believe that the kind of rage that leads to a twelve year old boy taking a gun to school and killing a teacher, wounding two classmates and then himself is much different than kids getting in playground fights. First is the degree of anger, and second is the severity and uncontrolled nature of the violence. In the case of rage/violence, the cause can usually be traced back to early childhood trauma. In George’s case he had been a victim of both abuse and neglect. But not all children who are abused grow up to be violent or killers. He, after years of treatment went on to marry; have two children and holds a steady job, interestingly enough he is working with the homeless mentally ill. George does have his anger issues, his wife reports that at times she feels fearful of his angry outbursts, irritability and black depression. These are the residual effects of early abuse. Research has identified several common characteristics of individuals who become violent.

One of the markers of individuals who act out their rage is the severity of the abuse in early childhood. The early trauma is usually so overwhelming that it causes Dissociation. Because these events are not processed as memories, but rather disconnected feelings these individuals seem to be totally unaware of their rage and how it impacts others.

Dissociation is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as “a disruption in the usually integrated functions of consciousness in reaction to an overwhelming psychological trauma. In other words it is a protective defense which leads to an altered state of consciousness.

In my research on the effects of trauma on young children (Broken Systems/Shattered Lives) I found that one of the effects of early relational trauma was the impact it had on brain development. In fact that was a critical factor I was unaware of, that children’s brains are experience dependent. Meaning that children’s brains develop through the attachment experience in a way that the regulatory structures which deal with emotion are not immediately able to assimilate severely violent and abusive behavior. The result is that trauma triggers a “shut down mechanism” known as Dissociation, it is an automatic function which allows the child to escape from the psychological impact of terror where there is no solution to the problem. These events are not usually one time occurrences but rather the result of continuous daily abuse which leave the child out of touch with such extreme emotions as terror and rage.

One of the researchers I discovered in working with traumatized children is Allan Schore. He investigated the maternal-infant interaction in great depth. He found:

“Trauma in infancy occurs at a critical period of growth of the emotion regulation limbic system which negatively effects the maturation of the brain systems that modulate stress and regulate affect, including aggressive affective states.” (Schore, Pg. 284, Affect Regulation)

In other words, infants who experience abuse and/or neglect with little compensatory repair are at a high risk for developing aggressive behavior in later stages of life. He concludes that an early family environment of maternal neglect and paternal abuse would be a particularly potent matrix for generating ineffective control systems that would be at high risk for later disorders of aggression and Dysregulation. (violent loss of control).

Schore looked for specific parental behaviors and familial environments which could lead to this condition. He describes an environment where there is a rapid escalation of rage in response to humiliation. He writes of a process where there is exposure to “shame-humiliation” as an all too frequent accompaniment of early child abuse. This particular kind of abuse creates a potent matrix which generates “shame-rage” that becomes dissociated. Hence we have children who have a predisposition to respond aggressively even when mildly provoked and have difficulty identifying non threatening situations.

When I was working with abused and neglected children one of the things which surprised me was the apparent lack of awareness social workers and foster parents had about the effects of early childhood trauma. That was why I wrote my book. The legacy of child abuse; both short term as well as the life-long effects are both unrecognized or minimized and because of this often go untreated. In my role as case worker I was initially shocked and bewildered by what I was encountering. In one home visit I observed a 3 year old boy screaming and jumping up and down on his bed because of uncontrolled rage. His adoptive father said it often went on for several hours. In another home visit a 5 year old boy became assaultive after a visit with his birth mother. It took both the foster father and me to restrain him as he kicked, head-butted, bit and thrashed about for 45 minutes until he was exhausted.

In still another case a six year old boy became enraged and totally destroyed all his toys and his room. He later became assaultive to his foster mother on a regular basis. The family finally requested placement in another home.

I have found that children, who have been victims of early relational trauma as compared with those who become securely attached, have several characteristics in common. (1) They live under continual conditions of threat, and feel fearful of their parent (s) which derails the attachment process. (2) Instead of learning a view of the world as safe, they view it as dangerous and not to be trusted. (3) Instead of playing and touching with affection they are aggressive instead. (4) They have been exposed to adults who model aggression and punishment. (5) They acquire a repertoire of aggression as a way of interacting with others. (6) They have not learned to modulate and contain feelings of anger, and hurt, they are not skilled at self-regulation (poor impulse control) and have a low threshold of tolerance for humiliation and frustration. (7) Where there is no threat, they often misperceive others as unfriendly and threatening. And finally, they have not acquired that all important humanizing quality of empathy

These markers have consistently been observed in young boys 7-11 years of age. As part of this research Lieberman, observed that the mothers of these boys are giving their children early training to become violent when they grow up. He also notes that there are many contributing factors. One of which is that these parents have suffered themselves from unresolved childhood trauma. As a result they are imprinting their own terror-rage and dissociation on their children and this becomes the mechanism for intergenerational transmission of violence. (Affect Regulation, Pg. 284) Most parents also live in poverty, have some form of mental illness, and there is often drug abuse involved.

Also noted in the research, is that children who were fortunate enough to have at least one or more positive connection in the critical period of their childhood were less prone to violent-uncontrolled rages. This, I believe was the case for my client George. He had fond memories of visiting a maternal grandmother who had a cabin in the mountains which he visited each summer for a few weeks at a time. I can attest to this personally. I had an abusive father and older brother and was also mercilessly bullied in school. It was only through the fortunate contact with an older roommate and two college professors who changed the trajectory of my life. My academic advisor when I was a graduate student also was instrumental in helping me survive the death of one of my children. It was a very difficult time and I often frightened my son and daughter with my anger and irritability. It was also the support of friends which got me through those difficult years.

In conclusion, we see too many acts of violent rage in the daily news being enacted with individuals killed or badly injured. Each time we see shocked families, neighbors, and friends interviewed. We now expect as part of the tableau to have them interviewed as they express their shock and surprise; “we had no idea, he was a nice guy, he was never any trouble, and we don’t understand how this could happen.”

In the latest episode, we have a 12 year old boy in Denver going to school with a loaded semi-automatic handgun and killing a teacher, loved by all, and shooting 2 classmates, and then killing himself. That is a lot of rage in such a young boy. Some students revealed that he may have been bullied.

Usually as these cases are investigated they find several red flags. It is common protocol to do a post mortem. When the authorities do their investigation they will find typical patterns: early developmental problems, family conflicts, the buildup of stress, a precipitating stressor, an available weapon, and then the child acts out all of his pain. Questions that come to my mind right away: what is a 12 year old doing with a powerful handgun and how did he get it into school?

What remains a concern to me after my research is that there are thousands of these children who suffer from early abuse at the hands of their “parents” who are not known and appear “normal” until something sets them off and their rage surfaces. Then we look at their story and see the causes: their pain, suffering, and hidden trauma.

I have learned several things from my research, but the main thing is that unrecognized and untreated trauma leads to terrible social consequences, and secondly when you abuse and humiliate a child you scar that child for life. I believe there is so much more we can do if we would just wake up to the problem, learn to identify children in distress, and provide them opportunities to heal in an enlightened, caring community. Perhaps then, the news will have to find new topics for headlines.

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