Vicarious Trauma, Secondary Victims

Teresa Pitt Green, Co-Founder

“Secondary trauma” is a term that only recently started to appear in psychological research referring to professionals, such as mental health care providers, first responders, ministers and others who work regularly with multiple traumatized people.

Professionals had been experiencing a high rate of burnout when offering support to survivors of trauma and abuse of any kind, and across all demographic groups. Burnout is now linked to something less obvious, i.e., profound emotional exhaustion.

Another sign of secondary trauma is called “compassion fatigue,” i.e., helpers become numb to the ordeal, possibly so detached as to fail in providing the care their work requires. Much research sees this numbing or detachment as a self-defense against unrelenting trauma streaming before their eyes.

Sadly, the National Center for Safe Supportive Learning Environments recently expanded “vicarious wounding” to advisories for teachers, school counselors and administrators who deal with students related to the horror of school violence (in which trauma may be shared first-hand and secondarily as a support person to students) but also related to violence or abuse which students suffer at home, not on school time. The anecdotal evidence shows that students can bring the impact of their trauma into the school setting and that their caregivers can absorb some of that pain in normal, caring teaching relationships.

Among scholars, definitions of these terms are still in flux; e.g., some literature reserves “secondary trauma” for physical and mental health care workers. It refers instead to “vicarious trauma” in all other professionals, like teachers who support a student affected by abuse. Given the magnitude of the agony, these fine points among experts on their quest are important to acknowledge, but so too is understanding limits, for now, on their scope of understanding.

To date, sampling for scholarship hardly dwells on one key group.

For every survivor of abuse or trauma, there is a network of loved ones. It is some mix of parents, spouses, siblings, children, extended families, partners, colleagues and friends. Beyond that, in my experience of Catholic communities, add the priests, ordained and religious, add the ministers and chaplains to this group. Add bishops who sit and hear a each survivor recount the detail of his or her story.

Add the arc of time, and variations for awareness. For example, the wounds inflicted in childhood by an abuser are most often tended in adulthood. So, the network of loved ones spans decades. Degrees of secrecy around abuse wounds vary. Some loved ones have a clue about what is happening, man do not. All are in relationship to a survivor.

It should come as no surprise that, for every one survivor who connects with me, there are two or three loved ones who reach out. These are the loved ones who are trying to be supportive. They arrive seeking answers how to help–and how to understand. Certainly there is much to share and offer them to help them in their loving quest.

But, they seldom have any self-awareness about how wounded they, too, may be–either by the shared background a sibling might have, or by the shock in a marriage. Parents of survivors commonly stagger under the weight of self-conviction and even self-hatred. It takes tie to move them into an understanding about the masterful grooming to which they may have fallen victim, too; this process is not unlike that I remember enduring as I realized I was not the cause of my abuse.

As loved ones know, I am compiling a book and resource list just for them–and by them if they wish to share their stories. For now, I’m preparing several posts for the coming months to share some of my work and to invite people to send me more links or ideas.

To start, there are few resources for spouses of survivors of child abuse. Of those that exist, there is a lack of insight (in my view) into the whole person wound.

The classic which is used by many therapists right in the therapeutic process as a tool is the book The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, 20th Anniversary Edition, by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis. This cornerstone in self-help literature runs over 300 pages long, but it devotes about 15 pages toward the end of the book to people who are supporting the women for whom the book is written. The related The Courage to Heal Workbook at least makes an effort to address men and women alike, offers many good insights, but it does not address any topics to supporters.

There are some books available, and a few more articles. These can be helpful, but it is a good deal of scattered information without making the wisdom and practical advice quickly accessible and useful for spouses.

In my view, a unique online resource for spouses, betrothed partners etc. of adult survivors of sexual abuse is called, simply, Support for Partners. This website is very clear and well organized. It covers any topic one might imagine … including all those which might be behaviors shared with a survivor. No, the website is not Christian. Yes, non-Christian groups can have hugely supportive information.

Among Support for Partner’s resources are many helpful lists and accessible counsel. For now, here’s an excerpt from a list for ways loved ones might take to keep a marriage or relationship alive in light of the disclosure of child abuse in the past (for the full list, see FAQs).

  • Offer a break from the conversation if things get too heated. Safety in the relationship is critical.
  • Pay attention to what you’re feeling and put it to words, if you aren’t sure then say so instead of remaining silent….
  • You’re in a tough situation that requires a lot of emotional energy…. Care for your own… well-being so you can be a supportive partner.
  • Be sure to take care of yourself – get some counseling of your own, find understanding & supportive friends, keep doing things that refresh and renew your spirit….

As in the research, Support for Partners emphasizes a key principle: self-care helps avoid or manage “vicarious trauma” or “secondary victimization.” While research has been able to list strategies for professionals (e.g., work-life balance, limited shifts), loved ones don’t have the same options, nor do that have training.

Limitations on resources for loved ones is critically important for survivor ministry. Basic information is needed to empower loved ones with knowledge. While some tell me that they find information on non-Christian sites useful, others find it wanting or, for its views on spirituality or sexuality, discomforting–even unacceptable. Everyone reports that at the core of their struggle lies an issue for which faith is needed–grappling with how the evil of abuse could occur–particularly if the abuse happened in a faith setting.

Based on workshops blending common issues in literature with a Catholic response, Fr. Lewis S. Fiorelli, O.S.F.S., and I pulled together a workbook, Veronica’s Veil, to round out all the best in literature with our faith in mind. We meant to foster a healing dialogue between survivors and their spiritual companions, who are very often priests, deacons or nuns. Yet, loved ones tell me as often as survivors that this book has been helpful to them overall, including from a faith perspective.

Until more resources are available for loved ones, the most compelling message may still be told on airplanes. During flight preparations, an attendant advises flyers that, in case of a sudden loss of air pressure, people should don their own oxygen masks before helping any others. Even parents traveling with a small child must secure their own supply of air before being any help to anybody else.

This is the primary point loved ones must understand. It is the permission we must give them. If they are like most people, self-care may be a foreign idea and a weak skill set. Yet, in many situations where survivors are in crisis, a loved one’s self-care is life-and-death for multiple people. .

Understanding the shared nature of suffering as Christians, who better to make a key difference by helping them learn they, too, need care by offering trauma-sensitive care?

Understanding the impact of suffering abuse, who better to offer support to our loved ones than we survivors who understand the path most of all?

Please look for more articles on resources for loved ones in the coming months. 



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