You don’t have to be a football fan to be shocked by Aaron Hernandez’s recent fall from grace. He’s the nation’s most recent example of potential apparently gone bad, leaving observers scratching their heads and wondering “why”? Why would anyone with his ability, fame, and fortune jeopardize his future in such a senseless way?
Self-defeating behavior challenges common sense. And yet most of us can think of times in our own lives when bad decisions, risky behavior, or the hope of a “quick fix” for a long term problem caused us to shoot ourselves in the foot. For many, lost opportunities or shattered dreams serve as a wake-up call. Priorities are re-evaluated, and hope is restored.
That’s not the case for children with early trauma histories. Left untreated, patterns of self-defeating behavior tend to follow them well into adulthood. The most common are substance abuse, eating disorders, and a pervasive inability to follow through or get ahead. Some suffer from severe depression that puts them at risk for suicide and other forms of self-injury.
The reason is the relentless nature of traumatic memories. These powerful “trauma fragments” cause survivors to view current stressors as a return of earlier abuse, neglect, or victimization. Manageable problems or misunderstanding take on the enormity of life and death situations. Once again the body’s arousal system moves into high alert.
It is a vicious cycle, but there is a way out. Here are two strategies you can use to help children distinguish between their current reality, and the past, when they were victimized in some way. Both are useful in avoiding a lifelong cycle of self-defeating behavior.
• Encourage children to develop a list of available resources they can use to manage stress and resolve conflict. Start with personal attributes like knowing how to ask good questions, or the ability to think “out of the box”. Expand the list to include people they can turn to if they need help or are frightened in some way. And don’t forget the things they can do to feel better- ride a bike, shoot some hoops, listen to music, or call a friend.
• Teach children how to use their mind to view and evaluate the anxiety they feel. Are they getting accurate information about the situation they are in, or is their body giving them faulty feedback? If faulty feedback is the problem, encourage them to take a few deep breaths, remind themselves that “that was then…this is now”, and engage in a self-soothing activity until they feel relaxed and back in control.