Strengthening family systems-intergenerational trauma and caregiver support

By Nzulu Skosana

Defining trauma
A trauma is defined as “an experience that typically overwhelms an individual mentally, emotionally and physically, resulting in an intense fear, helplessness and loss of control.” For any individual, a traumatic experience is life changing. Particularly when related to violence and abuse. If there is little to no support that one is receiving, professionally or through the support and understanding of loved ones, there are high chances that the impact of trauma overwhelms an individual. This leads to possibilities of heightened anxiety and ultimately depression and other possible forms of mental illness attached to trauma.

Impact of trauma and abuse on the child and the family system
According to Tears foundation, 50% of South Africa’s children will be abused before the age of 18. While it is difficult to imagine, if never experienced, the intense impact of trauma, people are experiencing trauma through physical, sexual, emotional and mental abuse and violence daily. We are faced with the surge of more and more reported cases being that of violations against minors. Where a child is faced with developmental challenges and milestones to reach; pressure to navigate and find their identity in a world expecting more from them than they can give; and where children have less time to do what is innate to their nature (play, make mistakes, explore and be happy), it has now become a norm that these same children, the future of our nation, are more prone to being abused and violated more than any other age group within our country.

Being a Social Worker providing psychosocial support and services within this organization, there has been a constant need to support primary caregivers to minors who have been victims of violence and abuse. It has been through this experience that certain trends have become apparent and are a constant reoccurring, contributing or are associated factor to the rise or presence of such violence among children. In supporting primary caregivers, a chilling and difficult reality has been the revelation of sexual violence and assault as a shared intergenerational trauma, from grandparent to parent, and parent to child. Cases where a client comes to receive primary caregiver support and needs her own trauma debriefing as the incident triggered her feelings relating to her historical trauma of sexual violence. The same client will inform you that she experienced and was living in a household where her mother experienced either the same trauma or domestic violence within the home. A vicious cycle that seems to have no end. Part of our process is then to provide a safe space, to promote openness, resulting in healing for the individual, before they even attempt to try and provide support for their child. In most of the cases it is found too that the matter was never reported. Feelings of shame and guilt attached to non-reporting is mostly as a result of the fact that the perpetrator, more times than not, is a TRUSTED FAMILY MEMBER. Due to stigma, these caregiver and guardians never report the case, or seek professional help, and spend years trying to cope with the trauma when suddenly their feelings are triggered by their children’s experiences of the same.

It is there important for one to understand that no one person reacts to trauma the same. Trauma is in the eye of the beholder. And while such traumas can be intergenerational or specific to an individual with no history of trauma, a child may be affected more so, in that violators are able to groom the children and instil in them the fear “to not tell or else…”. This may be particularly confusing for children when the violator is an important source of affection within the family system for the child or for the family (a parent figure, sibling or members of immediate family). Families and guardians should provide a space where, if such incidences occur, there is a constant open line of communication and trust, where a minor will not hesitate to report discomfort or inappropriate behaviour from violators, whether they be relatives or not. Educating children about their bodies and establishing and understanding that no one has the right to access their body without consent, should be a household duty before it is a school curriculum responsibility and expectation. Constantly checking in on children and being sensitive to a shift in behaviour and interpersonal relations within the home is vital. Finally having the courage to face one’s own history of trauma, where it exists, will best prepare a caregiver to support their child fully through a process of healing and seeking justice. There is no shame in seeking help, it is the most courageous and liberating thing one can do for themselves and their loved ones.

Signs to look out for as a parent or primary caregiver
In supporting primary caregivers, it has become apparent that we often, as parents, miss the most basic signs because we spend little time interacting with our children. Life is busy, we are constantly working, taking care of the family or maybe simply do not know how to communicate and make time for our children. The most important task is to try and to be intentional about setting time aside to bond with your children, including them in your daily routine. This way signs of change will be noticed earlier.
As a primary caregiver residing with a minor or child, there are certain ways to check in and be constantly aware of possibilities of abuse and violence towards children. This is not to promote that guardians and caregivers should be living in fear, but to ensure that the necessary safety precautions are in place, red flags are identified, and action can be taken. Here are some of the signs to look out for in the home, informing of possible child abuse towards one’s child:
Signs of possible sexual abuse:
• One will find that the child will suddenly have difficulty walking
• Sudden refusal to change in your presence or to participate in physical activity around the home (involving touch and play)
• Will gain bizarre, sophisticated or unusual sexual knowledge or behaviour
• Becoming pregnant or contracting a sexually transmitted infection or virus, particularly under ages of fourteen
• Runs away
Emotional abuse and maltreatment (which often goes hand in hand with sexual and physical violence):
• When the child shows extremes in behaviour (being overly compliant or demanding in behaviour, or passiveness/ aggression.
• Shows inappropriate adult behaviour (parenting other children etc) or showing inappropriate childly behaviour (frequent uncontrollable rocking or headbanging)
• The child is delayed in physical and emotional development
• Has attempted suicide, or distances self from a once close relationship they had with you as the primary caregiver/ guardian.

For help:
If any of the above has become a concern for you, and you feel you might be directly or indirectly affected by the information. Being a parent be sure to first communicate and ask the child “what happened, what is wrong, would you like to tell me something regarding this”. Signs of abuse need to be confirmed and the best way, as stated before, is to ensure there is an open and trusted relationship between the parent and the child for the child to feel comfortable to share. Where revelation of abuse occurs, it is advised that one reach out to a third party, professional to be exact. This may be reporting to the police, to a nearby social worker or child protection practitioner/ statutory worker, contacting an organization working with and supporting in matters relating to Abuse and Violence or speaking to a trusted loved one about the matter if you are unsure of what to do. We as Lawyers against Abuse are always ready to assist.

More Articles