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Children & Trauma

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Trauma & Children
A Parent Handout for Helping Children Heal

by Philip J. Lazarus, Ph.D.
Florida International University


Every parent at one time has worried about harm befalling their children.  When trauma to children occurs, the territory of everyday life becomes frightening & unfamiliar not only for children but parents as well. 

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Parents may find themselves overcome with anxiety & fearTrauma may send a shockwave to the system & parents may respond with a wide range of feelings

These feelings may include a sense of disbelief, helplessness, isolation, despair, or horror.  Parents may try to make sense out of a senseless act. 

Who can prepare for their children being physically or sexually assaulted, kidnapped, mugged, robbed or involved in a severe automobile accident? 

Who can prepare for children being diagnosed with a life threatening illness or experiencing a natural or man-made disaster?

Traumas typically occur suddenly, often leaving children little or no time to prepare physically or emotionally. Traumas are unpredictable & outside what's to be expected in children's lives. 

During a trauma, children experience intense fear, horror or helplessness. Typical methods of coping no longer work. Following trauma, children require extra support & need to learn new coping strategies.

Parents can be instrumental in their children's recovery. Therefore, helping children recover from a trauma is a family matter. Parents need to take the lead & model positive coping. Yet parents themselves may require extra information, support & resources to assist their children. 

Some first steps that parents can take are to understand the impact & symptoms of trauma & how to help in the aftermath. This handout provides this information.

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continued from above....

The Impact of Trauma

Trauma can change the way children view their world.  Assumptions about safety & security are now challenged. Children's reactions will depend upon the severity of the trauma, their personality makeup, their characteristic coping style & the availability of support

It's common for children to regress both behaviorally & academically following a trauma. A constructive way to view the situation is that they're normal children in an abnormal circumstance.

It's natural for children to first experience some sort of denial i.e., children may insist upon returning to a house that's been destroyed. 

Fears, worries or nightmares are common following a traumaSleep disturbances or eating difficulties may happen.  Also children may begin to regress emotionally or act younger than their chronological age. 

They also may become more clinging, unhappy & needy of parental attention & comfortFeelings of irritability, anger, sadness or guilt may often emerge. Somatic complaints such as headaches, stomachaches or sweating aren't unusual.  Some loss of interest in school & poor concentration are some other common reactions.

Symptoms Associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Following a trauma, children may experience some of the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). 

The main symptoms are as follows:

Re-experiencing of the trauma during play or dreams. For example, children may:

  • Repeatedly act out what happened when playing with toys

  • Have many distressing dreams about the trauma

  • Be distressed when exposed to events that resemble the trauma or at the anniversary of the trauma event

  • Act or feel as if the trauma is happening again

Avoidance of reminders of the trauma & general numbness to all emotional topics.

i.e., children may:

i.e., children may:

  • Have difficulty failing or staying asleep

  • Be irritable or quick to anger

  • Have difficulty concentrating

  • Startle more easily

What Can I Do as a Parent Following a Trauma?

Establish a sense of safety & security. It's essential that children feel protected, safe & secure in the aftermath of a trauma.  Ensure that all basic needs are met, including love, care & physical closeness.  Spend extra time to let children know that someone will nurture & protect them. Children will need a lot of comforting & reassurance.

Listen actively to your children: Seek first to understand before trying to be understood. Parents may underestimate the extent of the trauma experienced by their children. 

It's often not as important what you say, but that you listen with empathy & patience. In some instances your children may be reluctant to initiate conversations about trauma. If so, it may be helpful to ask them what they think other children felt or thought about the event. 

Also, it may be easier tor children to tell what happened (e.g., what they saw, heard, smelled, physically felt) before they can discuss their feelings about the trauma. In other instances, children will want to tell their parents the story of the trauma over & over. 

Retelling is part of the healing process. Children need to tell their stories & have their parents listen, again & again to each & every agoriizing detail.

Help your children express all their emotions. It's important to talk to your children about the tragedy - to address the suddenness & irrationality of the disaster. 

Reenactment & play about the trauma should be encouraged. It's helpful to ensure that children have time to paint, draw or write about the event.  Provide toys that may enable children to work thru the trauma

Examples may include such items as a toy fire engine, ambulances, fire extinguisher, doctor kit, etc. for a girl injured in a fire. Imagining alternate endings to the disaster may help empower your children & allow them to feel less helpless in the aftermath of a tragedy.

Validate your children’s feelings.  Help children understand that following a trauma all feelings are acceptable

Children will probably experience a myriad of feelings which could include shame, rage, anger, sadness, guilt, pain, isolation, loneliness & fear. Help your children understand that what they're experiencing is normal & to be expected.

Allow your children the opportunity to regress as necessary.  This is important so that they may "emotionally regroup." 

i.e., your children may request to sleep in your bed with the lights on or you may need to drive your children to school. Previously developed skills may seem to disappear or deteriorate. Bed-wetting or thumb sucking may occur. Aggression & anger may emerge in a previously non-aggressive child. Be patient & tolerant & never ridicule. Remember that most regression following a trauma is temporary.

Help children clear up misconceptions.  Help correct misunderstandings regarding the cause or nature of the trauma, especially those that relate to inappropriate guilt, shame, embarrassment or fear. (Examples may be " I should have been able to save my brother from the car wreck." "God struck my sister dead because God was angry at her." "My father died of cancer & I'll catch it from him.")

Educate yourself about trauma & crisis.  The more you know about trauma, the more empowered you may feel. To help educate yourself, consider setting up a conference with the school psychologist or mental health professional in your school. 

A good place to start is by reading the text listed below under "Resource for Parents.

Help predict & prepare. If your children need to go to a funeral or deal with surgery, carefully explain what will happen each step of the way. Allow your children to ask all kinds of questions. If they need to appear in court, explain what they'll see, hear, do, etc.

Arrange support for yourself & your family as necessary.  Consult with your clergy, rabbi, physician & friends as necessary. You may need extra emotional, religious, medical &/or psychological support

If possible take appropriate time for recreational or pleasurable experiences with your children to establish a sense of normalcy & continuity.

Communicate with the school & staff about what occurred.  Most teachers will be understanding & helpful if they know that children had a traumatic experience.  Teachers may be able to provide additional support both educationally & emotionally. They can also provide information to doctors or therapists or alert you to troublesome behaviors they observe.

Affirm that your children are capable of coping & healing in the aftermath of a trauma.  Plant "emotional seeds" that express confidence in your children's ability to heal. Remember the messages that you give your children have incredible power.

  • Seek professional assistance for your children & family as necessary.  When seeking help, make sure the professional has experience with children & has treated crisis & traumaFeel free to discuss with the therapist all your concerns & all aspects of treatment. If your children are experiencing the symptoms of PTSD, then therapy may be warranted.

What Can I Say as a Parent Following a Trauma?

  • Sometimes knowing exactly what to say is difficult.  However, your emotional expression of love & concern is more important than words. Just saying "This is very hard for us" can lead to emotional relief & understanding.

  • Always be honest with your children about what has happened & what may occur. Remember that following a trauma, children may lose a sense of trust about the safety & security of the world. Therefore, honesty is essential so your children can maintain a sense of trust.

  • Respect your children's fears. Children can't be helped by trying to argue them out of their fears by appeals to bravery or reason. What's most helpful is an approach that says "I know you're feeling frightened of - - - - - now." This can be followed by an offer of assistance & support by saying, "Let's see what we can do to make this less scary for you."

  • Make sure that your children know that you're aware of the seriousness of the situation. Allow your children to cry.  Saying to your children "Don't cry, everything will be fine" denies the seriousness of the situation.

  • Try to recognize your children's feelings & put them into words. 

i.e., if a child's close friend died in an automobile accident, you might say to your child "You're sad & angry that your friend was killed. I know that you must miss him very much."

Or if a child feels overwhelmed by fears in the aftermath of a hurricane, you may say, "I know that you're frightened, but we have a plan to protect us if another hurricane occurs."

What Should I Do if I Believe My Child May be Suffering from PTSD? 

Consult with your local school psychologist or contact a mental health professional who has experience in this area such as a psychiatrist, psychologist or mental health counselor. Your school psychologist or pediatrician may direct you to the appropriate resources.

What Type of Therapy is Recommended for Traumatized Children?

A variety of methods may be used depending on the orientation of a particular therapist. Very different approaches to the same problem can be equally effective when undertaken by an insightful & skilled professional. Approaches may include individual, group or family therapy

Therapists often use play, art & drama methods in their treatment as well as "cognitive-behavioral" approaches, which help children reinterpret events & feelings in a more positive way, or in some cases they might use clinical hypnosis. 

As part of the therapy experience, children will be guided to reprocess the trauma in a safe & supportive environment. 

In some instances medication may be used to control severe anxiety, depression or sleeplessness. However, medication shouldn't be used as a substitute for psychotherapy for traumatized children.

If I Seek Therapeutic Services for My Children, What Will be the Goals of Therapy?

The goals of therapy with traumatized children should include:

Gaining a sense of mastery & control over one's life

The safe expression & release of feelings

Relief of painful symptoms & post traumatic behaviors

Minimizing the scars of trauma

Corrections of any misunderstandings & self-blame

Restoration of hope regarding the future

Establishing a renewed sense of trust in oneself & the world

Developing perspective & distance regarding the trauma


Helping children recover from trauma is a family matter. It's important to maintain an open discussion of the trauma & recognize the feelings of all family members. 

Focus on the immediate needs of the children & take a one-day-at-a-time approach.  Find & use support systems outside of the family. Always maintain a positive image of your children as healers & survivors.

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Childhood Trauma

By Alice Miller, Ph.D.

Note from K. Stringer: Spanking can cause harm

Since adolescence I've wondered why so many people take pleasure in humiliating others. Clearly the fact that some are sensitive to the suffering of others proves that the destructive urge to hurt isn't a universal aspect of human nature.

So why do some tend to solve their problems by violence while others don’t?

Philosophy failed to answer my question & the Freudian theory of the death instinct has never convinced me. Nor could I make sense of genetic explanations of the evil, of the naive idea that a human being can be “born bad.”

Nobody could answer the crucial question: How is it that so many turn-of-the-century German children were born with such malignant genes that they’d later become Hitler’s willing executioners? It has always been inconceivable to me that a child who comes into the world among attentive, loving & protective caregivers could become a monster. 

Then, by closely examining the childhood histories of murderers, especially mass murderers & dictators, I began to comprehend the roots of good & evil: not in the genes, as commonly believed, but in the earliest days of life. Today, neurobiological research seems to fully corroborate what I discovered almost 20 years ago.

At that time I quoted in For Your Own Good at length the pedagogical advice given to parents in Germany a century ago & detailed what I believed to be a connection between the systematic cruelty of these methods & the systematic cruelty of Hitler’s executioners 40 years later.

The numerous & widely-read tracts by Dr. Daniel Gottlieb Schreber, the inventor of the Schrebergärten (the German word for “small allotments”), are of major interest here. Some of his books ran to as many as forty editions around the year 1860 & their central concern was to instruct parents in the systematic upbringing of infants from the very first day of life.

Many people - motivated by what they thought to be the best of intentions complied with the advice given them by Schreber and other authors about how best to raise their children. Today we would call it a systematic instruction in child persecution and maltreatment. One of Schreber’s convictions was that when babies cry they should be made to desist by the use of spanking, assuring his readers that “such a procedure is only necessary once, or at the most twice, and then one is master of the child for all time.

From then on, one look, one single gesture will suffice”. Above all, these books counseled that the newborn child should be forced from the very first day to obey and to refrain from crying.

We all know - or, today, we should all know - that physical punishment only produces obedient children but cannot prevent them from becoming violent or sick adults precisely because of this treatment. This knowledge is now scientifically proven and was finally officially accepted by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 1998. Contrary to common opinion prevalent as recently as fifteen years ago, the human brain at birth is far from being fully developed. It is use-dependent, needing loving stimulation for the child from her first day on. The abilities a person’s brain can develop depend on experiences in the first 3 years of life.

Studies on abandoned and severely maltreated Romanian children, as an example, revealed striking lesions in certain areas of the brain. The repeated traumatization has led to an increased release of stress hormones which have attacked the sensitive tissue of the brain and destroyed the new, already built-up neurons.

The areas of their brains responsible for the “management” of their emotions are 20 to 30 % smaller than in other children of the same age. Obviously, all children (not only Romanian) who suffer such abandonment and maltreatment will be damaged in this way.

The neurobiological research makes it easier for us to understand the way Nazis like Eichmann, Himmler, Hess and others functioned. The rigorous obedience training they underwent in earliest infancy stunted the development of such human capacities as compassion and pity for the sufferings of others.

Their total emotional atrophy enabled the perpetrators of the most heinous crimes imaginable to function “normally” and to continue without the slightest remorse to impress their environment with their efficiency in the years after the war. Dr. Mengele could make the most cruel experiments with Jewish children in Auschwitz and then live for thirty years like a “normal,” well adjusted man.

Those turn-of-the-century children who were “subjugated by looks” and systematically subjected to obedience drilling were not only exposed to corporal correction but also to severe emotional deprivation. The upbringing manuals of the day described physical demonstrations of affection such as stroking, cuddling and kissing as indications of a doting, mollycoddling attitude.

Parents were warned of the disastrous effects of spoiling their children, a form of indulgence entirely incompatible with the prevalent ideal of rigor and severity. As a result, infants suffered from the absence of direct loving contact with the parents, which also caused certain areas of the brain to remain underdeveloped.

I found it logical that a child beaten often and deprived of loving physical contact would quickly pick up the language of violence. For him this language became the only effective means of communication available. 

However, when I began to illustrate my thesis by drawing on the examples of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Ceaucescu, when I tried to expose the social consequences of child maltreatment, I first encountered strong resistance.  Repeatedly I was told, “I, too, was a battered child, but that didn’t make me a criminal.”

When I asked these people for details about their childhood, I was always told of a person who made the difference, a sibling, a teacher, a neighbor, just somebody who liked or even loved them but, at least in most cases, was unable to protect them. Yet through his presence this person gave the child a notion of trust and love.

I call these persons “helping witnesses.” Dostoyevsky, for instance, had a brutal father, but a loving mother. She wasn’t strong enough to protect him from his father, but she gave him a powerful conception of love, without which his novels would have been unthinkable.

Many have also been lucky enough to find “enlightened” and courageous witnesses, people who helped them to recognize the injustices they suffered, the significance the hurtful treatment had for them, and its influences on their whole life. They may even suffer much in their life, may become drug addicted, and have relationship problems, but thanks to the few good experiences in their childhood usually do not become criminals. The criminal outcome seems to be connected with a childhood that didn’t provide any helping witness, that was a place of constant threat and fear.

In my book The Untouched Key I mention the severe trauma that the child Pablo Picasso underwent at the age of 3: the earthquake in Malaga in 1884, the flight from the family’s apartment into a cave that seemed to be more safe, and eventually witnessing the birth of his sister in the same cave under these very scary circumstances.

However, Picasso survived these traumas without later becoming psychotic or criminal because he was protected by his very loving parents. They were able to give him what he most needed in this chaotic situation: empathy, compassion, protection and the feeling of being safe in their arms.

Thanks to the presence of his parents, the two enlightened witnesses of his fear and pain, not only during the earthquake but also throughout his whole childhood, he was later able to express his early, frightening experiences in a creative way. In Picasso’s famous painting “Guernica” we can see what might have happened in the mind of the three-year-old child while he was watching the dying people and horses and listening to the children screaming for help on the long walk to the shelter. Small children can go unscared even through bomb-raids if they feel safe in the arms of their parents.

It is much more difficult for a child to overcome early traumatization if they are caused by their own parents. In my book Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, which has now come out in a new edition, I analyze the childhood of the writer Franz Kafka. I try to show that the nightmares he describes in his stories recount exactly what might have happened to the small, severely neglected infant Kafka.

He was born into a family in which he must have felt like the hero of “The Castle” (ordered about but not needed and constantly misled) or like K. in “The Trial” (charged with incomprehensible guilt) or like “The Hunger Artist” who never found the food he was so strongly longing for. Thanks to the love and the deep comprehension of his sister Otla in his puberty, his late “helping witness,” Kafka could eventually give expression to his suffering in writing.

Does it mean that he therefore overcame his traumatic childhood?  He could indeed write his work, full of knowledge and wisdom, but why did he die so early - in his thirties - of tuberculosis? It happened in a time when he knew many people who loved and admired him. However, these good experiences could not erase the unconscious emotions and memories stored in his body.

Kafka was hardly aware of the fact that the main sources of his imagination were deeply hidden in his early childhood. Most writers aren’t. But the amnesia of an artist or writer, though sometimes a burden for their body, doesn’t have any negative consequences for society. The readers simply admire the work and are rarely interested in the writers’ infancy .

However, the amnesia of politicians or leaders of sects does afflict countless people, and will continue to do so, as long as society remains blind to the important connections between the denial of traumatic experiences in early childhood and the destructive, criminal actions of individuals.

Anyone addressing the problem of child abuse is likely to be faced with a very strange finding: it has been observed again and again that parents who tend to maltreat and neglect their children do it in ways which resemble the treatment they endured in their own childhood, without any conscious memory of their early experiences.

Fathers who sexually abuse their children are usually unaware of the fact that they had themselves suffered the same abuse. It is rather in therapy, even if ordered by the courts, that they can discover, sometimes stupefied, their own history.  And realize thereby that for years they have attempted to act out their own scenario, just to get rid of it.

The explanation of this fact is that information about the cruelty suffered during childhood remains stored in the brain in the form of unconscious memories. For a child, conscious experience of such treatment is impossible. If children are not to break down completely under the pain and the fear, they must repress that knowledge.

But the unconscious memories of the child who has been neglected and maltreated, even before he has learned to speak, drive the adult to reproduce those repressed scenes over and over again in the attempt to liberate himself from the fears that cruelty has left with him. Former victims create situations in which they can assume the active role. In this way the emotion of fear can indeed be avoided momentarily - but not in the long term, because the repressed emotions of the past don’t change as long as they remain unnoticed.

They can only be transformed into hatred directed towards oneself and/or scapegoats, such as one’s own children or alleged enemies.  I see this hatred as a possible consequence of the old rage and despair, never consciously felt, but stored up in the body, in the limbic brain.

The German reformer Martin Luther, for example, was an intelligent and educated man, but he hated all Jews and he encouraged parents to beat their children. He was no perverted sadist like Hitler’s executioners. But 400 years before Hitler he was disseminating this kind of destructive counsel. According to Eric Ericson’s biography, Luther’s mother beat him severely even before he was treated this way by his father and his teacher.

He believed this punishment had “done him good” and was therefore justified. The conviction stored in his body that if parents do it then it must be right to torment someone weaker than yourself left a much more lasting impression on him than the divine commandments and the Christian exhortations to love your neighbor and be compassionate toward the weak.

Similar cases are discussed by Philip Greven in his highly informative book Spare the Child. He quotes various American men and women of the church recommending cruel beatings for babies and infants in the first few months of life as a way of ensuring that the lesson thus learnt remains impressed on them for the rest of their life. Unfortunately they were only too right. These terrible, destructive texts which have misled so many parents are the conclusive proof of the long-lasting effect of beating. 

They could only have been written by people who were exposed to merciless beatings as children and later glorified what they had been through. Their cruel beliefs could only grow up in the darkness of their own cruel and repressed infancy. Fortunately, these books were not published in forty editions in the USA.

As the example of Luther shows, nothing that a child learns later about morality at home, in school or in church will ever have the same strong and long lasting effect as the treatment inflicted on his or her body in the first few days, weeks and months. The lesson learned in the first three years cannot be expunged.

If the body of a child learns from birth that tormenting and punishing an innocent creature is the right thing to do, and that the child’s suffering must not be acknowledged, that message will always be stronger than intellectual knowledge acquired at a later stage. Greven’s examples eloquently demonstrate that people subjected to maltreatment in childhood may go on insisting all their lives that beatings are harmless although there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Can a person who still supports corporal punishment of children be considered as somebody who has overcome his or her abuse? He may still remain a blind victim who refuses to face his history and to work on it.  Instead he will give destructive advice until his death and continue to ignore the child’s pain, because his view of reality is severely distorted by early unconscious experience. On the other hand, a child protected, loved and cherished from the outset will thrive on that experience for a lifetime and develop empathy for others.

It's interesting that almost all rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust who were interviewed reported that their parents had attempted to discipline them with arguments and support rather than punishment. They were not beaten. People given early affection and support are quick to emulate the sympathetic and autonomous natures of their parents.

Common to all the rescuers were self-confidence, the ability to make immediate decisions and the capacity for empathy and compassion with others. 70% of them said that it only took them a matter of minutes to decide they wanted to intervene. 80% said they did not consult anyone else.

This attitude, prized in all cultures as “noble,” is not something instilled in children with fine words. If the behavior actually displayed by caretakers is such as to contradict their own words, if children are spanked in the name of lofty ideals, as is still the custom in some parochial schools, then those elevated sentiments are doomed to go unheard or even to provoke rage and violence. The children may end up aping those high-minded phrases and mouthing them in later life, but they will never put them into practice because they have no example to emulate.

In my most recent book, Paths of Life, I try to illustrate this dynamic by describing Hitler’s childhood, a childhood that offers us many still untouched keys. Hitler’s specific problems with Jews can in fact be traced back to the period before his birth. In her youth, Hitler’s paternal grandmother had been employed in a Jewish merchant’s household in Graz. 

After her return home to the Austrian village of Braunau, she gave birth to a son - Alois, later to become Hitler’s father - and received child-support payments from the family in Graz for fourteen years. This story, which is recounted in many biographies of Hitler, represented a dilemma for the Hitler family. They had of course an interest in denying that the young woman had been left with a child either by the Jewish merchant or his son.

On the other hand it was impossible to assert that a Jew would pay child-support for so long without good reason. Such generosity on the part of a Jew would have been inconceivable for the inhabitants of an Austrian village. Thus the Hitler family was faced with the insoluble dilemma of devising a version that would serve to nullify their “disgrace.”

For Alois Hitler the suspicion that he might be of Jewish descent was insufferable in the context of the anti-Jewish environment in which he was raised. All the plaudits he earned himself as a customs officer were insufficient to liberate him from the latent rage at the disgrace and humiliation visited on him through no fault of his own. The only thing he could do with impunity was to take out this rage on his son Adolf. 

According to the reports of his daughter of a former marriage, Angela, Alois beat his son mercilessly every day. In an attempt to exorcise his childhood fears, his son nurtured the manic delusion that it was up to him to free not only himself of Jewish blood but also all Germany and later the whole world. Right up to his death in the bunker, Hitler remained a victim of this delusion because all his life his fear of his half-Jewish father had remained locked in his unconscious mind.

I have set out these ideas in greater detail in my book For Your Own Good.  One can find them highly unsettling and in no way sufficient to explain Hitler’s actions. Not all his actions, I agree, but certainly his delusions. And those delusions were at the very least the foundation of his actions, as all our unconscious emotions can become.

I can certainly picture the boy Hitler swearing vengeance on “the Jews,” those monstrous fantasy-figures of an already diseased imagination. Consciously, he probably thought he could have led a happy life if “the Jew” had not plunged his grandmother into the disgrace that he and his family had to live with. And it was this that in his eyes served to excuse the beatings he received from his father, who, after all, was himself “a victim of the evil and omnipotent Jew.” In the mind of an angry, seriously confused child, it is only a short step from there to the idea that all Jews should be exterminated.

Not only Jews. In the household of Hitler’s family lived for years the very unpredictable schizophrenic aunt Johanna whose behavior is reported to have been very scary for the child. As an adult Hitler ordered to be killed every handicapped and psychotic person to free the German society from this burden. Germany seemed for him to symbolize the innocent child who had to be saved. Consequently, Hitler wanted to protect his nation from the dangers he himself had faced. Absurd? Not at all. For an unconscious mind this kind of symbolization might sound very normal and logical.

Besides those fears connected to father and aunt there was his early relationship with his very intimidated mother, who herself lived in constant fear of her husband’s violent outbursts and beatings. She called him “uncle Alois” and endured patiently his humiliating treatment without any protest. Adolf’s mother had lost her first three children to illness and Adolf was her first child to survive infancy.

We can easily imagine that the milk he drank from his mother was in a way “poisoned” by her own fear. He drank her milk together with her fears but was of course unable to understand or integrate them. These irrational fears - that an outsider, watching his speeches on videos, can easily recognize - stayed unrecognized and unconscious to Hitler until the end of his life. Stored up in his body, they drove him constantly to new destructive actions in his endless attempt to find an outcome. To his dying day, Hitler was convinced that only the death of every single Jew could shield him from the fearful and daily memory of his brutal father.

In the absence of positive factors, affection and helping witnesses, the only course open to the mistreated individual seems to be the denial of personal suffering and the idealization of cruelty with all its devastating after-effects. Undergoing an exceedingly humiliating and cruel upbringing at the pre-verbal stage without helping witnesses may instill into the victim admiration of this cruelty if there is no one in the immediate vicinity of the child to query those methods and stand up for humane values.

Therefore it didn’t surprise me that in the childhood of people who later became dictators, I have always found a nightmarish horror, a record of continued lies and humiliations, which, upon the attainment of adulthood, impelled them to acts of merciless revenge on society.

These vengeful acts were always garbed in hypocritical ideologies, purporting that the dictator’s exclusive and overriding wish was the happiness of his people.  In this way, he unconsciously emulated his own parents who, in earlier days, had also insisted that their blows were inflicted on the child for his own good.

In the lives of all the tyrants I analyzed, I also found without exception paranoid trains of thought bound up with their biographies in early childhood and the repression of the experiences they had been through. Mao had been regularly whipped by his father and later sent 30 million people to their deaths but he hardly ever admitted the full extent of the rage he must have felt for his own father, a very severe teacher who had tried through beatings to “make a man” out of his son.

Stalin caused millions to suffer and die because even at the height of his power his actions were determined by unconscious, infantile fear of powerlessness. Apparently his father, a poor cobbler from Georgia, attempted to drown his frustration with liquor and whipped his son almost every day. His mother displayed psychotic traits, was completely incapable of defending her son and was usually away from home either praying in church or running the priest’s household.

Stalin idealized his parents right up to the end of his life and was constantly haunted by the fear of dangers, dangers that had long since ceased to exist but were still present in his deranged mind. His fear didn’t even stop after he had been loved and admired by millions.

The same might be true of many other tyrants. They often drew on ideologies to disguise the truth and their own paranoia. And the masses chimed in enthusiastically because they were unaware of the real motives, including those in their own biographies. The infantile revenge fantasies of individuals would be of no account if society did not regularly show such naive eagerness in helping to make them come true. Mad tyrants would not have any power if society understood that it is their damaged brains which are constantly driving them to avoid dangers that no longer exist.

Naturally, my references to Schreber and his methods are not sufficient to explain the history of the Holocaust but they do explain a lot. However, in no way should this explanation lead to an exoneration of the perpetrators, relieving them of their responsibility by declaring them “sick.” No upbringing, however cruel, is a license for murder. But blaming the whole thing on a defective genetic blueprint doesn’t make much sense either.

As I asked before: Why should there have been so many people born in Germany thirty or forty years before the Holocaust with such a fateful genetic disposition? I do not know of any gene researcher who would try to answer this question. It is quite absurd to assume that some people are born with the genetic program to later become anti-Semites, racists, lynchers or rapists.

The almost total neglect or trivialization of the infancy factor in the context of violence sometimes leads to explanations that are not only unconvincing and abortive but which actively deflect attention away from the genuine roots of violence.

Also, the existence of exceptions showed again and again that propaganda and manipulation at school alone were not sufficient to transform people into mass murderers. Only men and women who had experienced mental and physical cruelty in the first weeks and months of life and had been shown no love at all could possibly have let themselves be made into Hitler’s willing executioners.

As Goldhagen’s archive material shows, they needed almost no ideological indoctrination because their bodies knew exactly what they wanted to do as soon as they were allowed to follow their inclinations. And as the Jews, young or old, had been declared non-persons, there was nothing to stop them indulging those inclinations. 

But no amount of indoctrination alone, at school or wherever, will unleash hatred in a person who has no preconditions in that direction. It is well known that there were also Germans, like Karl Jaspers, Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann, who immediately recognized the declaration that Jews were non-persons as an alarm signal and the rallying cry of untrammeled barbarism.

Doubtless there are people who grew up with loving and protecting parents who could later find a kind, sympathetic partner, could organize their life and become good parents, even if they had to go through the horror of a concentration camp during their adolescence.

On the other hand, the lives of many were broken, even without catastrophic experiences in their later life. They just couldn’t find the way to liberate themselves from their old fears, never identified as such. From many cases of survivors I learned that it was the quality of their infancy that determined the way they overcame later threats, including the Holocaust.

Adults who grew up without helping witnesses need the support and assistance of enlightened witnesses, of people who are well aware of the dynamics of child abuse, people who can help them to take their feelings seriously, understand them and integrate them, as part of their own story. 

In an informed society, adolescents will have the luck to talk to others about their early experiences. They will be able to verbalize their truth and to discover themselves in their own story, their own tragedy, without avenging themselves violently for their wounds, or to poison their systems with drugs.

I have wrongly been attributed to the thesis according to which every victim inevitably becomes a persecutor, a thesis that I find totally false, indeed absurd. To say that every cow is an animal doesn’t include the statement that every animal is a cow. It has been proved that many adults have had the good fortune to break the cycle of abuse.

Yet I can certainly avert that I have never come across persecutors who weren’t themselves victims in their childhood, though most of them don’t know it because their feelings are repressed. The less these criminals know about themselves, the more dangerous they are to society.

So I think it's crucial to grasp the difference between the statement, “every victim becomes a persecutor,” which is wrong, and the statement, “every persecutor was a victim in his childhood,” which I consider true. The problem is that, feeling nothing, he remembers nothing, realizes nothing, and this is why surveys don’t always reveal the truth.

Yet the presence of a warm, enlightened witness ... therapist, social worker, lawyer, judge ... can help the criminal unlock his repressed feelings and restore the unrestricted flow of consciousness. This can initiate the process of escape from the vicious circle of amnesia and violence.

Working toward a better future cannot be done without legislation that clearly forbids corporal punishment toward children and makes society aware of the fact that children are people too. The whole society and its legal system can then play the role of a reliable, enlightened and protecting witness for children at risk, children of adolescent, drug addicted criminals who may themselves become predators without such assistance.

The only reason why a parent might smack his children is the parent’s own history. All other so-called reasons, such as poverty and unemployment, are pure mystification. There are unemployed parents who don’t spank their children and there are many wealthy parents who maltreat their children in the most cruel way and teach them to minimize the terror by calling it the right education. With a law prohibiting corporal punishment towards children, people of the next generation will not have recorded the highly misleading information in their brain, an almost irreversible damage.

They will be able to have empathy with a child and understand what has been done to children over millennia. It is a realistic hope to think that then (and only then) the human mind and behavior will change. With a law that forbids spanking every citizen becomes an enlightened witness.

Anniversary Reactions to a Traumatic Event:
The Recovery Process Continues

As the anniversary of a disaster or traumatic event approaches, many survivors report a return of restlessness & fear. Psychological literature calls it the anniversary reaction & defines it as an individual's response to unresolved grief resulting from significant losses.

The anniversary reaction can involve several days or even weeks of anxiety, anger, nightmares, flashbacks, depression or fear.

On a more positive note, the anniversary of a disaster or traumatic event also can provide an opportunity for emotional healing. Individuals can make significant progress in working thru the natural grieving process by recognizing, acknowledging & paying attention to the feelings & issues that surface during their anniversary reaction.

These feelings & issues can help individuals develop perspective on the event & figure out where it fits in their hearts, minds & lives.

It's important to note that not all survivors of a disaster or traumatic event experience an anniversary reaction. Those who do, however, may be troubled because they didn't expect & don't understand their reaction.

For these individuals, knowing what to expect in advance may be helpful. Common anniversary reactions among survivors of a disaster or traumatic event include:

They may have recurring dreams or nightmares. These reactions may be as vivid on the anniversary as they were at the actual time of the disaster or traumatic event.

  • Grief & Sadness: Individuals may experience grief & sadness related to the loss of income, employment, a home, or a loved one. Even people who have moved to new homes often feel a sense of loss on the anniversary.

Those who were forced to relocate to another community may experience intense homesickness for their old neighborhoods.

  • Fear & Anxiety: Fear & anxiety may resurface around the time of the anniversary, leading to jumpiness, startled responses & vigilance about safety.

These feelings may be particularly & strong for individuals who are still working thru the grieving process.

Survivors may be reminded of the possessions, homes, or loved ones they lost; the time taken away from their lives; the frustrations with bureaucratic aspects of the recovery process; & the slow process of rebuilding & healing.

Individuals may also experience guilt about survival. These feelings may be particularly strong for individuals who aren't fully recovered financially & emotionally.

  • Avoidance: Some survivors try to protect themselves from experiencing an anniversary reaction by avoiding reminders of the event & attempting to treat the anniversary as just an ordinary day. Even for these people, it can be helpful to learn about common reactions that they or their loved ones may encounter, so they're not surprised if reactions occur.

  • Remembrance: Many survivors welcome the cleansing tears, commemoration & fellowship that the anniversary of the event offers. They see it as a time to honor the memory of what they have lost. They might light a candle, share favorite memories & stories, or attend a worship service.

  • Reflection: The reflection brought about by the anniversary of a disaster or traumatic event is often a turning point in the recovery process. It's an opportunity for people to look back over the past year, recognize how far they've come & give themselves credit for the challenges they surmounted.

It's a time for survivors to look inward & to recognize & appreciate the courage, stamina, endurance & resourcefulness that they & their loved ones showed during the recovery process.

It's a time for people to look around & pause to appreciate the family members, friends & others who supported them thru the healing process. It's also a time when most people can look forward with a renewed sense of hope & purpose.

Although these thoughts, feelings & reactions can be very upsetting, it helps to understand that it's normal to have strong reactions to a disaster or traumatic event & its devastation many months later.

Recovery from a disaster or traumatic event takes time & it requires rebuilding on many levels - physically, emotionally & spiritually. However, with patience, understanding & supportfrom family members & friends, you can emerge from a disaster or traumatic event stronger than before.

If you're still having trouble coping, ask for help. Consult a counselor or mental health professional. In the workplace, you may be able to get assistance from your human resources department or your company's Employee Assistance Program.

Helping Young Children Cope with Trauma

Disasters are upsetting to everyone involved. Children, older people &/or people with disabilities are especially at risk. For a child, his or her view of the world as a safe & predictable place is temporarily lost.

Children become afraid that the event will happen again & that they or their family will be injured or killed. The damage, injuries & deaths that can result from an unexpected or uncontrollable event are difficult for most children to understand.

How a parent or other adult reacts to a child following any traumatic event can help children recover more quickly & more completely. This brochure contains general information to help you in this task.

Children's Reactions

Children's fear & anxiety are very real, even though to adults they may seem exaggerated. Children are afraid of what's strange. They fear being left alone. Following a disaster, they may begin acting younger than the age they are.

Behaviors that were common at an earlier age, such as:

may reappear.

Older children who have shown some independence may want to spend more time with their families. Bedtime problems may appear. A child may begin to have night-mares; not want to sleep alone; &/or become afraid of the dark, falling asleep or remaining asleep.

Some children will show their fear by developing physical symptoms, such as stomachaches, headaches or feeling "sick." All children can experience thinking difficulties.

They can become easily distracted, feel confused & disoriented & find it hard to concentrate. These reactions can be triggered by smells, objects or activities associated with the trauma. A child may be unaware of the triggers & of any of the behavioral changes that occur. They aren't intentionally showing they're anxious or fearful.

Children of different ages react in different ways to trauma.

Birth to 2 years
Without the ability to speak, children cannot describe the event or their feelings. They can retain memories of particular sights, sounds, or smells. When they are older, these memories may emerge in their play. Babies may be more irritable, cry more often and need to be held and cuddled frequently. They will respond to the caring that is given to them by an adult.

Preschool and Kindergarten
In the face of an overwhelming event, very young children can feel helpless, powerless, and unable to protect themselves. When the safety of their world is threatened, they feel insecure and fearful. Children this age cannot understand the concept of permanent loss. They believe that consequences are reversible. They will repeatedly recreate parts of the disaster in their play. These are all normal reactions. Abandonment is a major childhood fear, so children need frequent reassurance they will be cared for and will not be left behind.

Activities for home or school: play acting, physical contact, puppets, art, stories, large muscle movement (throwing balls, etc.).

School age (7 to 11 years)
hildren at this age have the ability to understand the permanence of loss from a trauma. They can become preoccupied with details of it & want to talk about it continually.

They may not be able to concentrate in school & their grades drop. Since their thinking is more mature, their understanding of the disaster is more complete.

This can result in a wide range of reactions:

School age children can also slip back into earlier behaviors. As in younger children, sleep problems can appear. Their anxiety & fear may be seen in an increased number of physical complaints.

Activities for home or school: play acting, puppets, drawing & painting, sharing their experiences in groups, reading, creative writing or discussion.

Pre-adolescence & adolescence (12 to 18 years) In this age group, children have a great need to appear knowledgeable & experienced to the world, especially to their family & friends. When they live thru a traumatic event they need to feel their anxieties & fears are shared by their peers & are appropriate.

Because they survived the trauma, they may feel immortal. This can lead to reckless behavior & taking dangerous risks. Their reactions are a mixture of earlier age group reactions & reactions that are more adult. Teenage years are a period of moving outward into the world.

However, experiencing a trauma can create a feeling that the world is unsafe. Even teenagers may return to earlier ways of behaving. Overwhelmed by intense reactions, teens may be unable to discuss them with their family members.

Activities at school: general classroom activities, literature or reading, peer helpers, health class, art class, speech/drama, social studies/government, history.

How To Help Children

Children of all ages
can benefit from the family keeping their usual routines - meals, activities & bedtimes - as close to normal as possible. This allows a child to feel more secure & in control. As much as possible, children should stay with people with whom they feel most familiar.

Special Needs
Accept the special needs of children by allowing them to be more dependent on you for a period of time. Give more hugs if they need them; let them keep the light on at night or not sleep alone or return to having their favorite teddy bear or blanket; don't mind their clinging behavior.

Media Coverage
Following a disaster, everyone is eager to hear the latest news about what happened. However, disaster research has shown that unexpected messages or images on television were frightening, causing a reappearance of stress-related problems.

In addition, anyone who watches the disaster coverage can become what is called a "secondary victim" & can suffer emotional & physical problems. It's best to not allow children to watch news coverage of the disaster.

Feelings & Reactions
express their feelings & reactions in different ways. Your acceptance of this will make a difference to how your child recovers from the trauma. This means accepting that some children will react by becoming withdrawn & unable to talk about the event, while others will feel intensely sad & angry at times & at other times will act as if the disaster never happened.

Children are often confused about what's happened & about their feelings. However, don't be surprised if some children don't seem to be affected by what they have seen & heard. Not everyone has immediate reactions; some have delayed reactions that show up days, weeks, or even months later & some may never have a reaction.

Talking about what happened

  • Listen to & accept children's feelings.

  • Give honest, simple, brief answers to their questions.

  • Make sure they understand your answers & the meaning you intend.

  • Use words or phrases that won't confuse a child or make the world more frightening.

  • Create opportunities for children to talk with each other about what happened & how they're feeling.

  • Give your child an honest explanation if you're feeling so upset you don't want to talk about what happened. You may want to take "time out" & ask a trusted family friend to help.

  • If children keep asking the same question over & over again it's because they're trying to understand; trying to make sense out of the disruption & confusion in their world. Younger children will not understand that death is permanent, so their repeated inquiries are because they expect everything to return to normal.

  • If the child feels guilty, ask him or her to explain what happened. Listen carefully to whether he or she attaches a sense of responsibility to some part of the description. Explain the facts of the situation & emphasize that no one, least of all the child, could have prevented it.

  • Let the school help The child's teacher can be sensitive to changes in the child's behavior & will be able to respond in a helpful way.

  • Even if you feel the world is an unsafe place, you can reassure your child by saying, "The event is over. Now we'll do everything possible to stay safe & together we can help get things back to normal."

  • Notice when children have questions & want to talk.

  • Be especially loving & supportive; children need you at this time.

When To Seek Professional Help
Children are amazingly flexible, even though they can be deeply affected by trauma or losses. Sometimes a child can be helped by a counselor who can provide a safe place to talk about what happened & their feelings.

Getting professional help is a good idea if a child shows any of the following changes for longer than 3 months following the trauma:

  • Behavior or academic problems at school.

  • Angry outbursts.

  • Withdrawal from usual social activities or play with other children.

  • Frequent nightmares or other sleep disturbances.

  • Physical problems such as nausea, headaches, weight gain or loss.

  • Intense anxiety or avoidance behavior that's triggered by reminders of the event.

  • Depression or a sense of hopelessness about life or the future.

  • Alcohol or drug use problems.

  • Dangerous risk-taking behavior.

  • Continued worry about the event as a primary focus in life.

Certain events may make a child more vulnerable to having difficulty. If a child has experienced a recent loss such as a divorce, a death of someone who was close, or a move to a new neighborhood, he or she may feel particularly overwhelmed by the trauma. A traumatic event can reactivate the emotions associated with previous traumas, which can be overpowering.

Seeing a counselor doesn't mean that a child is "mentally ill" or that you've failed to support him or her. Following a trauma, many adults & children have found that it's helpful to talk with a counselor who has specialized training in post-traumatic reactions & can help them understand & deal with how they're feeling.

the following web links are provided for your convenience in visiting the source sites of the information displayed on this page:

The following web links are provided for your convenience in visiting the source sites for the information displayed on this pageL

click here!

Click here to visit the Red Cross page that allows you to access your local chapter of the Red Cross by entering your zip code in the specified box, to see how you can help in your area. You can also call your local Red Cross Chapter that you can find the number for online or in your local phone book to volunteer for any openings that may need to be filled or you can find another way to help others there as well!

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this is simply an informational website concerning emotions & feelings. it does not advise anyone to perform methods -treatments - practice described within, endorse methods described anywhere within or advise any visitor with medical or psychological treatment that should be considered only thru a medical doctor, medical professional, or mental health professional.  in no way are we a medical professional or mental health professional.