What is trauma? Trauma is described as an emotional response to a terrible event, according to the American Psychological Association. How do I see trauma? I see trauma as the bruises, scrapes, broken bones, and belt marks. I see trauma in the form of tears, broken hearts, confusion of love and relationships. I see disappointment, mistrust, dysfunctions, and self-harm. I see broken families, self-blame, guilt, and shame. Trauma can be one single event or reoccurring events over years of feeling broken and ashamed. Trauma changes you. Trauma changes the way you think, behave, who you trust, your sense of safety, and sense of self.
As the therapist located at The Dragonfly House Children’s Advocacy Center, I have had the honor to work with some of the bravest and strongest children, teens, and parents I have ever met. When trauma occurs to an individual, it effects the entire family. When one domino falls, the whole line follows. In working in abuse, my goal is to break that cycle of abuse that gets passed down through generations. We want to stop the long-term side effects of later life health issues, addictions, self-harm, conflictual relationships, and mental illness. I am fortunate to have a career in which I don’t need to wear a separate mask to work. I feel born to be a therapist and it has become who I am as a person. I am trained to see situations and events through the eyes of my clients. My role is not to take the place of a parent, to help a detective “solve” a case, break apart families, or tell someone what they should or shouldn’t do. My role is to listen. To guide. To help them make the best decision in a non-judgmental and safe place. To form one of the most powerful, influential relationships to help them pick back up the pieces and create a new life. A better life.
I recently heard the analogy “therapy is like driving a car”. The client drives and I help navigate. Sometimes we will have to re-navigate, yield and go back before we go forward again because healing is not always a constant drive forward. My goal is to allow the client to let go of the control that trauma has had in their life and learn that it does not define them as a person. In my practice, I use Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) and utilize tools from non-directive play therapy in young children. I also do person-centered therapy, family therapy, and incorporate a lot of positive psychology and self-esteem exercises in teens and adults. This is because trauma can cause confusion with their own bodies, boundaries, and relationships, especially during those tough years of figuring out who they are and want to be. Every client brings a new set of goals, needs, and wants. Successful prognosis greatly relies on the desire of the client to make life-long changes. Change, while not quick, is always in the best interest of and on the time of the client. My job is not to force change to happen but give them the tools to do so when the time is right and open the door of communication with the parents when it is possible. It takes time and in a world of searching for a quick fix, we have to find patience and determination for real change to occur. Trauma can give us the opportunity to find our strengths, learn more about who we are, increase self-esteem and understanding, and give hope and encouragement to be stronger and more determined than ever before.
I have seen the play room become a disaster zone of chaos portraying what happens behind closed doors at a child’s home because this is how children communicate. The toys are their words. I have watched a young boy use art and create a picture book of the abuse that occurred because he is too young to use words that portray how healing non-verbal communication can be. I have seen a teen, who was so numb of her emotions that it became a survival technique over years of sexual abuse, find the ability to express again. I have seen the sigh of relief knowing the child has a support system greater than their fear. I have seen teens who find the strength to say they are more than the scars on their bodies and face their parents in tears disclosing the abuse that occurred years ago. This job has many, many rewards, but witnessing these courageous sessions is beyond ability to express in words.
I also offer a teen girls therapy support group and non-offending care givers support group because the power of being in a room with others who understand and can relate is something words can not describe. As humans, we find comfort in others who truly understand us. We want to break that shame and stigma that abuse carries and find relief in being able to share personal stories and how it shaped them as a person.
Witnessing adults who have never verbalized the abuse in their past and find the strength to do so in front of others is why I do what I do. Teens who overcome the shame and guilt and learn that what happened was not their fault is why I do what I do. Young children who have the courage to express what is happening in their own homes and be able to master the skills of their own potential through play is why I do what I do. I have seen the relief in their eyes and expression on their faces when they learn that trauma is why they are feeling what they are feeling, is why their grades are falling, and why they are having a hard time concentrating in class. I laugh with my clients, I share and feel their pain when they disclose their deepest pain, I have even cried. I am human. And, I learn more from them than they ever will from me. Each client brings a new story. They are more than a number. They have a name. They have worth. My goal is to let them see their worth again when they feel like everything has fallen apart.
I do feel it is important that I say I do not speak for every therapist. I have the privilege of working with some of the very best therapists at Lorven Child and Family Development based out of Lexington. Each of us at Lorven use a variety of modalities such as TF-CBT, Play Therapy, Neurofeedback, Sandtray, EMDR, and Family Therapy. We all work towards the same goals and it is important that the client finds the right “fit” based on their needs. If one child is not responding to a specific type of therapy, we can work together to find the best fit among each of our skills and abilities. Every therapist at Lorven is available to work with children from The Dragonfly House, I am just blessed to be the one based inside the CAC itself. Because of this, I have the wonderful ability to often see the entire process work from beginning to end.
To the teachers, parents, coaches, and caregivers: those young children who are disrupting the class, can’t sit still in their seats, have defiant behavior towards adults who we should respect, and who use verbal and physical aggression to express their anger, or even the one who hardly speaks and sits anxiously in the corner… look deeper than the behavior. Look deeper than the frustration they are causing you. I encourage you to make reports when there is suspicion and utilize this amazing children’s advocacy center that we have to help reduce the number of children who fall behind and keep getting passed down because nobody wants to take time to ask the right questions. It is a true miracle to watch a child follow the process of The Dragonfly House from beginning to end and watch each professional work together as a team to give this child the best care possible. We have witnessed it. We learn from it. And, we continue to strive to make each case better. That is why we do what we do and will continue to fight for those who can’t.
Jennifer Broadway Smith, LPCA, MA/EdS, NCC