The Cost of Caring:
Secondary Traumatic Stress and the Impact of Working with High-Risk Children and Families

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Lesson 1: Introduction to Secondary Trauma

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Introduction to Secondary Trauma

Each year, millions of children are exposed to some form of severe traumatic event. Many of these children are victims of physical, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect. Many thousands more have been traumatized by natural disasters (e.g., tornadoes, hurricanes, floods), automobile accidents, drowning, community violence or interpersonal violence they witness in their own homes. The trauma suffered by these children is not benign. It can result in serious and chronic emotional and behavioral problems that are very difficult to treat. And each year, day after day thousands of teachers, caseworkers, police officers, judges, pediatricians and child mental health professionals work with and try to help these children. And each year, parents, grandparents, foster parents care for these children.

All too often, the adults are working in difficult, resource-limited situations. The children may present with a host of problems that can confuse or overwhelm their caregivers and treaters. The pain and helplessness of these children can be passed on to those around them. Listening to children talk about the trauma, trying to work in a complicated, frustrating and often "insensitive" system, feeling helpless when trying to heal these children – all can make the adults working with these children vulnerable to develop their own emotional or behavioral problems.

The purpose of this course is to present an overview of the topic of secondary trauma. The goal is to gain a better understanding of how to better serve the children we work with by making sure we are at our best. The better we understand how working with traumatized children affects us both personally and professionally the better able we will be to serve them. In order to remain emotionally healthy ourselves it is critically important that we understand how the elements of a child’s trauma of children can be absorbed. All professionals working with traumatized children can learn approaches and strategies to protect themselves from being emotionally overwhelmed by this work. In the end, the ability to help traumatized children depends upon our ability to stay emotionally healthy and motivated in difficult and often very frustrating situations.

Before we continue, here are our course objectives:

Course Objectives

1.  To introduce and discuss the concepts of burnout and secondary traumatic stress.

2.  To review how unpredictable stress and trauma can negatively impact emotional, cognitive and physical functioning.

3.  To describe individual, event-related and systemic factors which increase or decrease risk for developing trauma-related symptoms.

4.  To help individuals understand the value of developing individualized “protective” strategies when they work in conditions likely to cause secondary traumatic stress

5.  To direct individuals to additional resources that can further assist in meeting objectives

What Exactly Is Trauma?

Before we go any further, I want to clarify what "trauma" means for the purposes of this course. A trauma is a psychologically distressing event that is outside the range of usual human experience. Trauma often involves a sense of intense fear, terror, and helplessness.

Trauma should not be confused with stress. As we will learn later, stress is an inevitable component of everyone's life. Trauma is an experience that induces an abnormally intense and prolonged stress response.

Simply by signing up for this course, you have expressed an interest in trauma and perhaps count yourself or someone you love among the statistics cited above. Maybe you know a child who is a victim of childhood trauma, or are an adult still grappling with your own experience.

No matter what brings you here, take a moment now and identify someone or some event in your life or work that makes this issue real. While you take this course, your own experiences with traumatic events and with children or families impacted by trauma will provide the true context for learning.


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