- Janyne McConnaughey, PhD
#2 Trauma-Informed Ministries: Is it Childhood Trauma? (Republished)
Republished as resources to accompany the soon to be published book, Trauma in the Pews: Impact on Faith and Spiritual Practices, August 23, 2023.
During my recent webinar, How to Be a Healing Church, attendees asked great questions. It was impossible to answer all of them. I stated that I would blog and elaborate on the list of practical trauma-informed practices along with the questions. This is the second blog of the series (the first can be found here).
Question: Is there a tendency or leaning toward finding trauma in places it doesn't actually exist in an effort to try to answer or explain personal situations?
On a personal basis, I would answer this question this way:
Everything I never understood about myself finally made sense when I understood the effects of trauma and inadequate attachment (which is relational trauma).There was so much more trauma in my life than I ever allowed myself to consciously know or accept. Like me, most people minimize their trauma.
On a general basis, I would answer the question this way:
There may be some who might use their traumatic childhoods as an excuse to continue living in unhealthy ways. I believe that is the concern expressed in this question. Trauma survivors experience great fear in choosing to stepping into the unknowns of what healing might entail. What guarantee do they have that pursuing healing will ever help them? None. And often in the process of trying to help them heal, we tell them they need to leave behind everything they have used to survive.
When talking with people who are truly desiring to live the Christian life but struggling to leave addictive behaviors behind, their expression of guilt and shame is evident. No one WANTS to be addicted to unhealthy coping mechanisms. It just looks that way because they keep choosing them. They may be controlling other behaviors, but this one thing holds great power. The truth is that for many who suffered childhood trauma, this may be the one thing that helped them survive. It isn’t healthy and may kill them eventually, but they have no other tools to calm themselves.
The concept of self-soothing is key to understanding addictive behaviors. In my second book, Jeannie’s Brave Childhood: Behavior and Healing through the Lens of Attachment and Trauma, I explain the importance of the mother’s gaze.
The ability to self soothe develops in the neurobiology of the attachment relationship. “The kinds of communicative signals that are strong releasers of oxytocin are mutual gaze, certain tones of voice that are similar to child-directed speech or ‘motherese,’ and certain qualities of touch.”1
Without this necessary attachment relationship in which mirror neurons enable the child to internalize the soothing nature of the mother, the child is destined to a life of searching for ways to soothe themselves. Healing from trauma requires being able to self soothe. An individual can develop soothing skills, but not without intentional interventions. Most will turn to addictions—some maladaptive and some like my own which appear healthy (such as seeking validation through achievements and avoidance through constant activity).
Back to the question: Is there a tendency or leaning toward finding trauma in places it doesn't actually exist in an effort to try to answer or explain personal situations?
I believe most would choose to heal the inner turmoil caused by childhood trauma if they could or even knew it was possible. The inability to soothe a factor in my suicide attempt when I was twenty-three. Inside, I was an infant screaming for someone to help me, but none could hear my cries. No one chooses to remain in this inner turmoil which drives them to damaging personal choices. Like me, they don't know it can be different.
For most of my life, I believed every choice—my own and that of others was completely volitional. I would have asked this question and thus, I understand it. I believed that with God’s help, every person (including me) is capable of making correct choices in every situation. I, along with most others in the church, believed some were using their childhood experiences as an excuse for their choices. I had to fall flat on my face to realize I was wrong.
When some do use of childhood trauma as an excuse it may be fear in disguise. It is the belief that there is no hope for life to be different. They cannot leave what soothes them behind without a guarantee that the inner pain will not consume them. Most have no idea that releasing that deep well of trauma held in their body through trauma-informed therapy along with assistance to learn other coping strategies, will enable them to leave the unhealthy choices behind.
Sadly, even when healing seems possible many do not have access to the kinds of therapy or support that would help them. This is where this church can step in—but that is the topic for another blog.
____________________ 1. For recent research on the neurobiology of attachment I recommend: Baylin, J. and D. A. Hughes, The Neurobiology of Attachment-Focused Therapy (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2016)