How can you judge the value of a life raft if you can’t measure the impact of the waves, the harshness of the current or the depth of the water? For clients, being in the midst of chaos feels like being in the middle of the ocean with no vessel, flailing arms in hopes that someone might see and help.
It can be hard to determine where to start to get out of a bad situation. But with the help of professionals, clients learn how to slowly build their life rafts. Not all results are immediate. It can take years for a counselor’s impact to become apparent in a client.
When I was a client in counseling as a minor, I’m sure that the helping professionals in my life questioned whether they were making any impact on me. They would likely be surprised to find that not only did they have an impact, but that I have made it my mission to pass on what I learned from them.
I remember the first time a school counselor told me that I could not only graduate from high school but that I could also go on to college. I had assumed that opportunity was lost to me because I had previously dropped out of school. No one else had ever told me it was still a possibility. I still remember the way I felt when I heard this news. I was crying because, in that moment, I felt more hope than I had felt in a very long time.
I had been subjected to a life that was excessively chaotic. Between elementary and high school, I moved eight times, was interviewed by child protective services (CPS) social workers in two different states, had to stay with a stranger while my mother was in rehab and was fostered by two other families (being removed by court order from one of them).
Upon graduating from high school, I was floored to find out that children in similar situations do not often go to or finish college. After graduating with both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees and becoming licensed in counseling, I feel safe to say that I beat the odds and the expectations of many. I can’t stress enough that I could not have accomplished these goals if it wasn’t for the professionals in my life.
The list of coping skills presented in this article may be useful in working with adolescents and adults who have had childhood trauma, but they may not work as well for people who are still in the throes of chaos. This list is best used with clients who are at a place in their lives in which they are feeling safe and no longer feeling threatened by their attackers.
Many of the action points on this list are considered therapeutic techniques, but I used them before I knew they were taught as techniques to counselors. My hope is that this list will help other counselors who might feel lost in their practice or off course with a client to find direction once again.
The following skills constitute the foundation of my life raft.
1) Making a timeline
For someone who has had a chaotic childhood, time might seem like an abstract concept. Collecting documents can help these clients piece memories together, make past events feel more real and provide an outside, unbiased perspective into what was happening to and around them. Documents also can be used as a tool when confronting family members who deny or don’t want to face reality.
In Washington state, anyone can search online for court case files and request public records. I have been requesting my childhood records because I need help understanding what happened in my life. I collected as many records as I could find related to my past. These include court records, CPS records, police reports and mental health evaluations.
Obtaining records has been a struggle, but it has also been one of the most important steps in confronting my trauma. They serve as a concrete reminder that, as unbelievable as it all seems, what I remember from my childhood really happened. I was able to obtain one record from CPS but was informed a previous record had been destroyed before I even knew it existed. In many states, CPS doesn’t have to inform the subjects of records that the records exist before destroying them. The records told me about the abuse I remember and didn’t report when, as an adult, now I know I should have.
My mother let me know that anything left at her house from when I was a child is gone, so these records are all I have of my past. I haven’t talked to her in six years. I offered to show my younger sister the records because she was very young when the chaos ensued and doesn’t remember a lot. I believe this step has helped both of us.
2) Sharing my story
Listening is the most basic counseling technique any professional is taught, and talk therapy is the place where trauma victims really need to start. Listening is a tool that can be used to gain the trust of clients who normally keep their thoughts on lockdown. For me, having someone there literally just to listen — who didn’t know my family, wasn’t going to tell them what I was talking about and wasn’t going to judge me — was such a relief.
My counselor had to push me a little bit to get me to talk about the trauma. I brought my counselor a copy of my CPS records and let her look at them. It was easier than saying what had happened to me. I didn’t know how to bring it up myself. I had avoided telling her that I had a traumatic childhood because I had come to counseling (or so I thought) for a different reason. After she read my records, I felt she had a better understanding of why there were destructive patterns in my life.
3) Confronting the shame
After trust is gained, clients feel more comfortable talking about how they have treated others in response to what has happened to them. This is important because clients who come from dysfunctional families might fear backlash. Their family members may have tried to use these incidences against them for blackmail or as a “guilting” technique in the past. Just the thought of bringing this up and the potential resulting scrutiny can put clients on edge.
Talking about guilt in a therapeutic setting can help clients to see patterns of shaming and let go of their guilt little by little. Once clients can acknowledge that they have hurt others, it can open up conversation about how these clients are now different. They recognize that how they treated others was wrong and can reassure themselves that it won’t happen again.
This process gives clients back the power. Shame can no longer be used against them once they recognize that part of the reason they can talk about it now is because they have taken steps to change their destructive behaviors with others and are interested in constructive interactions.
It is really hard to acknowledge when you’ve wronged someone. I had memories of how I had wronged people that haunted me for years. When I finally was able to talk about these memories with my counselor, I never sensed that she judged me for what I had done. It was such a relief to finally be able to tell someone who wasn’t going to judge me for actions I had taken when I was a kid and was in a bad place.
As a counselor, normalizing is an essential technique, but there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to use it. It is appropriate to use normalizing to help clients recognize that they reacted harshly to a situation because that is how they grew up — as long as they are taught or have learned more constructive ways to handle tough situations. Children have little control, but adults are more responsible for their behavior. Discussing how destructive reactions are inappropriate as an adult is important.
After I told my counselor about what I was ashamed of and how I had treated people, she would normalize it for me, saying, “In this situation, it would be normal for you to have this reaction given your history.” When she told me that, it helped me put into perspective how the trauma affected me and why I would resort to taking certain actions instead of dealing with issues in a more functional manner. From this step, I have been able to deal with my anger, panic, and numbness in more constructive ways.
5) Practicing altruism
Clients may not always be in a position to help others financially, but there are plenty of other ways to help every day. Encourage clients to find those small but meaningful opportunities. It has been therapeutic for me to be there for my younger sister, both financially and emotionally, the way I would have liked someone to have been there for me. When I was removed by court order from a family member’s home, I didn’t get to see my sister for five years. Even though she doesn’t blame me and is understanding, this is how I am trying to make up for missing all that time watching her grow up.
6) Making amends
When clients tell their counselors about their guilt, they might feel depressed for a while after. Admitting that you hurt someone, even if it wasn’t on purpose, might not feel like enough. The next step might be apologizing in a way that feels fitting to the client. Not everyone gets a chance to face their victim and apologize, so writing a letter (which might be kept or sent to the victim, depending on whether the client feels the apology would benefit the other person) can be a very healing experience.
In dealing with my guilt, I apologized to family members because, in my agony, I hadn’t thought about their feelings or how I treated them. I offered that if they ever felt the need to confront me, I would be open to meeting with them. It has helped me to imagine these interactions beforehand. So far, none of my family members has felt the need to confront me. Instead they have told me either that I do not need to apologize or that they have forgiven me, which has brought me closure.
7) Discovering gratitude
For clients in the midst of depression or anxiety, it can be hard to elicit any positive feelings. It’s most important during these times to be grateful because the affect can snap a person out of the emotion. Making a list of what the clients have that they would be worse off without or the things they don’t want to change is a good place to start. This might also jog some really good memories, and clients might end up wanting to reach out to people. The internet is a useful tool for people searching and reaching out when the time comes.
Clients who haven’t been able to confront their past or who still feel guilt and shame might not be able to remember the people who helped them yet. Give it time — it’s a process.
I decided to use the internet to try to connect with people I remember showing me kindness when I was in despair. From becoming grateful, I was able to have more affectionate feelings toward my family and started recognizing the little things they had done to help me along the way.
Even though my mother was not in a position to care for me at times when I was a child, there are things she did that showed that she loved me and cared about me. When the time came, she gave me her tax information so I could fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to finish college. She also told me I wasn’t crazy even when I was convinced I was. These actions don’t make me want to talk to her, but they do let me know that she wanted to keep me moving forward. I wasn’t able to be grateful for these little acts until I could fully accept all the trauma and stop trying to hide it from myself and everyone else.
8) Having faith
It’s well-known that possessing faith can literally keep someone alive. Being able to turn life circumstances over to a higher power can be a profoundly impactful internal resource. For me, this takes some of the pressure off regarding the goals I want to achieve. I keep working toward my goals, but it helps to have faith that forces are at work (even if I don’t understand them), giving me the power to push to get the things I want. When I’ve done all I can, that’s the time for me to just turn it over to the universe to let it take care of what I no longer have control over. I have stopped trying to maintain control of everything and have started to just let things happen.
It doesn’t matter if your faith is in a Christian God, Buddhism, Judaism, fate, Unitarian Universalism or some other system. Just having faith and truly believing that there is some bigger force out there that can’t be taken away can make a positive impact on an individual’s life.
9) Reconnecting with community
Everyone has days when he or she would rather just sit alone at home and watch TV or be on the computer. Over time, this can result in feeling disconnected and lonely. It can even be triggering, making clients feel more isolated than they actually are.
Tell clients that you understand that it can be hard to get out at times. But also remind them that simply being with others can provide a welcome distraction, result in meeting personal goals, and lead to positive feelings and new opportunities. For frugal clients, there are plenty of free events, but this might require some research.
For me, forcing myself to become part of a community and visit friends even when I didn’t feel like it made all the difference. I ended up being grateful I had made myself go. If clients tell you this same thing, talk extensively about what happened that made it a positive experience for them. This will encourage the new behavior.
10) Engaging in advocacy
There are plenty of marches going on in America right now as a way to advocate for what many believe in. Advocacy creates unity between people with similar goals, creates community, brings hope and empowers. Counselors can help by searching for groups or communities with a purpose that would help their clients move forward from their past.
I case manage children in foster care and get triggered at work sometimes because some of the stories I hear feel similar to mine. I can physically feel my heart hurt. To deal with this, I remember that there aren’t many professionals who can relate to what children in foster care go through the way I can, so I draw on my personal experience to advocate for and understand them.
11) Using a mantra
Having a reminder of what’s often forgotten or overlooked in the midst of chaos can be very comforting. This can help clients who feel stuck to keep going. When things are hard in my adult life, one thing that keeps me going is remembering that I survived much worse as a kid and have only grown stronger.
When people stop denying or minimizing their trauma and face their fears head-on, the resulting calm and insight are greater than the numbness brought on by burying the past. We all have our methods of coping; sometimes our coping strategies are so unique to us that we can’t even put a name to them.
Counselors have the ability to help clients find their strengths. The hard work results in feeling so empowered that clients may prefer to remember what they have already survived rather than trying to forget and feeling powerless over what they are experiencing now or will experience in the future.
Keep in mind that anyone who is sitting in front of you as a counselor has already survived a lot. Their arms are flailing for help, but they haven’t given up. There is still a chance for them. Using the techniques in this article, you have the power to help them build their life raft. You have the power to support them and be there for them as they look back on the chaos they survived, so that they can finally be free from it. Now that I have reevaluated my personal history, I want to help others recover from their own fears and trauma.
It took a long time to get to this place where I can finally face my past and not feel devastated. But now that I have, I would rather live in a cardboard box than ever deny myself again. When I tried to ignore my past, all it did was trigger me. It did not help me or those around me. I had so much anxiety that it was hard to function daily. I forgot why I was doing what I was doing and what my goals were in life. When I finally faced it head-on, I was able to reclaim myself, my confidence and my internal compass. Without the guidance I received from the helping professionals in my life, I would not be where I am today.
It might seem that some children are set up for failure, but counselors can help them find the strength within themselves to overcome. Take it from someone who knows. Anyone who is reading this possesses the power to change the course of someone’s life. Remember that.
Angela Frank is a licensed mental health counselor in Washington state. She graduated from Washington State University with a Bachelor of Science in psychology and a Masters of Arts in education. She recently started a blog at highlymobilechildawareness.com and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.