Recognizing Secondary Trauma - John C. Wunsch, P.C.
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Recognizing Secondary Trauma

In recent years, a growing body of medical literature has established that severe trauma to one family member can result in a phenomenon known as “secondary traumatization”––post-traumatic symptoms exhibited by the other family members, particularly children, of those harmed.

“During the past few decades, studies have shown that individuals in the trauma survivor’s close proximity may also suffer from psychological symptoms associated with his/her experience. Extant research reveals trauma’s massive influence on the entire family system, through processes related to parenthood, spousal relationships and household conflict and aggression (Galovski and Lyons, 2004). In addition, trauma was often found to be “contagious,” as manifested in numerous studies of secondary traumatization (e.g., Dekel et al., 2016), i.e., post-traumatic symptoms experienced by those who were only indirectly exposed to trauma, whether by hearing stories about the event, or by witnessing their negative effects on their loved one (Figley, 1995).”[1]

Within the legal realm, these ideas need to take hold. Eventually, inexorably, the law should come to recognize secondary trauma as a compensable element of damage––particularly with regard to children. What occurs when a child is forced to witness, over months and years, ongoing hurt and harm to a parent? How does the child react? What long-term consequences develop? “Witnessing the negative effects on their loved one”––children cannot be expected to have in place fully developed coping mechanisms. There’s even literature that describes this secondary effect on parents:

“Parents or guardians of children exposed to traumatic injury are equally likely as the child, if not more so, to develop PTS in response to their child’s injury, and parent reactions can impact the child’s symptoms and recovery (Landolt et al., 2003Nugent et al., 2007Cox et al., 2008).”[2]

Before such an element of damage could reasonably be sought, a diagnosis of secondary trauma would need to be made by a qualified professional. As well, treatment would need to be obtained. This class of injury is serious, disabling and disruptive, and medically verifiable: “In another study exploring secondary traumatic stress symptoms in spouses and children of 54 National Guard families, Herzog et al. (2011) found a moderate relationship between PTSD symptoms in service members and secondary trauma symptoms in children.”[3]

An on-the-horizon line of cases seeking recovery for secondary trauma should be sought when circumstances warrant. Psychologists refer to “internalizing behaviors” (behaviors focused inward such as anxiety, fearfulness, and social withdrawal) and “externalizing behaviors” (behaviors focused outward such as anger, aggression, and violence) in characterizing the ways in which secondary trauma affects children. There are certain cases where these types of secondary traumas afflicting children should be pursued. Courts will one day permit such cases to be presented routinely, but only after they have been thoroughly convinced of the concept’s validity. “Trauma’s massive influence on the entire family system”––we’ve all known such exists. All that remains is for it to be legally recognized.

[1] Danny Horesh, Adam D. Brown, Post-traumatic Stress in the Family, Front. Psychol. 06 February 2018.

[2] Anna E. Wise, Douglas L. Delahanty, Parental Factors Associated with Child Post-traumatic Stress Following Injury: A Consideration of Intervention Targets, Front. Psychol. 22 August 2017

[3] Suzannah K. Creech, Gabriela Misca, Parenting with PTSD: A Review of Research on the Influence of PTSD on Parent-Child Functioning in Military and Veteran Families, Front. Psychol. 30 June 2017