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New Family: How one can heal from a traumatic upbringing


Families can be a blessing. They can offer you unceasing love and a safe place to come home after contending with a world that’s in part marked by tragedy and malevolence. Families should offer this, and I hope most families do offer this.   However, some people are born into families that do not offer the love, safety, and security that the word “family” would imply.

Families of origin are tricky because people do not choose them. They do not choose their mother, father, siblings, grandparents, foster parents, or the people with whom they spend their developmental years. It is of course my hope that people’s experiences in their families of origin families are loving and supportive.  However, there are instances when that does not happen and the attention and care one would require from a family is absent. Moreover abuse, neglect, or abandonment may be present instead. If this is someone’s experience, then it would stand to reason that his or her perception of “family” may not be very positive. The closeness that the word “family” implies would seem incongruent to people coming from a family of origin that neglects, abuses, or traumatizes them. If this is their understanding of “family,” then how could they expect that others outside of their “family” could treat them any better?

Mistreatment in one’s family of origin can lead to attachment issues later in life. Psychologist John Bowlby researched the importance of children’s caregivers responding to their needs in a caring and supportive way. Without this sensitivity, children are at risk for developing insecure attachment styles which can lead to feelings of mistrust, fear, and avoidance towards others. This will likely bring significant challenges to the children’s eventual relationships with others later in life.

When people grow up in traumatic familial environments, it makes me question how strong a genetic bond may really be between children and their parents. I’m sure most people would say that of course there is a naturally strong attachment between children and their biological parents, and I don’t necessarily disagree with this. I only wonder how bonded parents could be to their biological children if they are neglecting or abusing them.  

So, what is a person to do when their biological family of origin mistreats them?  Are they meant to grow up without a semblance of a family? They could try, but I’m sure they would find it incredibly difficult. People are not meant to live without close connections. We need to feel loved, supported, and bonded to people we care about in order to live well. Therefore, simply living with the family that one was arbitrarily assigned to at birth is not the correct answer to me.  

My solution to this is the idea of a “new family” – one that a person voluntarily selects. If people were born into an unloving biological family, their sense of family does not have to begin and end there. They can develop a new family. These could be friends, coworkers, mentors, or romantic partners or other people they meet later in life with whom they develop an attachment. They can choose whom they invest in by who treats them well and whom they feel supported by. 

If people are able to individually define who and what their family entails, I believe they are much more able to live with a sense of safety and security in their lives, maybe just as much as people who are born into nurturing families from the start. To me, “family” is whom we love, whom we devote ourselves to, and whom we spend our time with. These experiences of closeness to and acceptance by others are essential to people’s health. Humans are social beings and are able to find family any way they can. This brings me hope that even people who are born into traumatic, neglectful, or abusive families do not have to continue having these unloving experiences with others later in their life.  They will get their family. They may just have to make one.

What Just Happened?: Making Sense of My Seemingly Random Reactions


Marie was feeling productive at work when she received a phone call from her mother. As soon as she saw the caller ID, she felt irritable and dismissed the call. For the rest of the day, she struggled to return her focus to her work or get anything accomplished.

Brenda was enjoying her time out to dinner at a nice restaurant with her boyfriend, Jude. However, she wanted to run out of the restaurant when Jude took his phone out of his pocket and started doing something on it. For the rest of dinner, she just answered his questions with one-word answers and couldn’t wait to get home so she could go to sleep.

Tiffani was fully engaged in the conversation at her 11:00 business meeting, which she found to be fascinating. When the colleague sitting next to her raised his hand to interrupt the discussion, she flinched and had trouble participating in the remainder of the meeting.

 

What do these women have in common?

Although at first glance, these women may seem to be drastically different from one another, when we take a moment to investigate their histories, we find similarities in their reactions in each situation. Each of these women’s reactions makes sense. Each of these women’s trauma response was triggered by the circumstances of their environments and made it difficult for her to fully engage in the present moment.

Marie grew up in a home where she never knew what she would experience when she walked in the door. Some days, her mother would be waiting to greet her with a smile and interest in what happened at school. Other days, her mother would be drunk on the couch, waiting for Marie to return from school so she could take care of her mother’s every need.

Brenda’s first marriage started off great, but after a year, her husband didn’t seem to even know she existed, that was, until he wanted something from her sexually and he could not be deterred. Brenda felt unwanted and cast-off and wasn’t surprised the day he filed for divorce because he found a “better woman.” It took a long time to feel ready to date again, but finally, she was willing to try again.

Tiffani’s step-father was scary and mean. She would hide in her closet to stay away from him when he was angry, praying that he wouldn’t find her because she was afraid that this time, he would hit her so hard she might die.

 

What is a trauma response and why does it happen?

Our brains automatically respond to dangerous, stressful, and traumatic situations by prioritizing reactions that will keep us safe; this is a very good thing, as it helps us to survive. When a person experiences these dangerous, stressful, or chaotic situations time and again, his/her brain gets really good at quickly prioritizing this survival response. Sometimes, the brain is so good at doing this, the survival response becomes the automatic and occurs even when the person is in a completely safe situation. This triggered reaction is a trauma response and it makes sense. Marie’s trauma reaction was triggered because her brain knows that sometimes when she talks to her mom, she isn’t safe. Brenda’s trauma reaction was triggered because she felt unwanted by her boyfriend when he started using his phone; she had been here before and it was not safe. Tiffani’s trauma reaction was triggered because her brain knows that sometimes, when someone near you raises his/her arm, it is to hit her. Although each of these women may not understand why she reacted in the way she did, each response makes sense in light of her past experiences and makes it difficult for her to fully engage in the present moment.

 

What can I do if I experience things like this?

First and foremost, seek support from safe and trustworthy people. Talking through your current and past experiences with a family member or friend who has consistently been safe and caring can help you express these things so you don’t have to hold them inside or on your own. Many individuals find it helpful to participate in therapy in order to have a safe place to discuss these reactions and the situations that have caused them and work towards growth and healing.

Secondly, take care of yourself when these reactions occur – maybe you need to take a break to go for a walk, grab a coffee, or take some deep breaths. Do something little and easy to help calm your brain and your body down so that you can re-engage in the present moment. Be kind to yourself by reminding yourself that this reaction was helpful for your survival at one point in time and makes sense in the current situation – there is nothing inherently wrong with your reaction and you can do something to help yourself through it.

If you would like to begin receiving professional services for reactions such as those described above, our office has therapists who have specialized training to provide services to individuals who have experienced trauma. Please click here to request an appointment.

 


*These stories are fictional and were created with the intent to illustrate triggered responses as a result of traumatic experiences in order to increase awareness, offer knowledge, and provide support for those who may be experiencing similar reactions.

Cornerstone Counseling Center of Chicago