Contributed by: Austin Raines

“The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.”

-Rachel Naomi Remen

Before I dive into the impacts of vicarious trauma, I want to first discuss what exactly it is and why a parent might be experiencing this. The impact of vicarious trauma or secondary traumatic stress, on parents of teens who are struggling with their mental or physical health, can be significant and far-reaching. There is the potential to affect the mental and emotional health of both the parent and others in the household. Vicarious trauma occurs when an individual is exposed to the traumatic experiences of another person, such as a child. It can lead to a range of physical, psychological and emotional symptoms.

As I continue to discuss this topic, it is important to first understand that vicarious trauma impacts everyone differently. This can even be the case for you and your partner. Hearing, seeing ,and  experiencing your child suffer can be traumatic. How parents intake and react to their children’s struggles can look and feel completely different. This can cause struggles between couples or even in yourself, as there is potentially a preset expectation as to how one should react to trauma. As difficult as it may be, please try and work to understand that there is no textbook way to react to trauma. Give some grace to yourself and your loved ones during these stressful times.

Taking on the responsibility of being a parent is already an incredibly challenging job, and when you add in the impacts of trauma, it can make your role all the more difficult. For parents, witnessing their child’s suffering can cause so much stress and feelings of helplessness. This can further intensify feelings of sadness, guilt, fear, and anxiety. In many cases, physical symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, and stomach problems can occur. Parents may also feel a sense of shame or inadequacy, as they might process their child’s trauma as a shortcoming of their parenting.

As vicarious trauma takes its toll physically and mentally, it can also begin to impact a parent’s actual ability to parent their child effectively. Common ineffective parenting behaviors that indicate that secondary traumatic stress is present include parents potentially becoming dismissive, avoidant, or withdrawn from their child. This can lead to a sense of isolation, which can further exacerbate the parent and the child’s trauma. On the opposite end of this spectrum, you have parents who become overly protective or overbearing. This can be displayed through never leaving your child alone, never letting them try new or normal activities due to fear, or jumping to the worst-case scenario. Parents may also become overly involved, trying to “fix” the problem or take on the role of caretaker, further increasing their stress levels.

This first step in working towards effective parenting responses to vicarious trauma is recognizing the potential for trauma. From here, you can work towards creating a safe and supportive environment, validate your and your child’s feelings, and set limits in areas of life that are needed. The goal is to become or continue to be a nurturing parent that is present throughout your family’s struggles. It is also of paramount importance for parents to take care of themselves and practice self-care. There’s an old saying that goes, “you can’t pour from an empty cup.” If you are running on empty, it will only make your job that much more difficult. Self-care can look different for everyone, but whatever helps you recharge your batteries can be very helpful.

It is important for parents to be aware of the impact of vicarious trauma and to seek support and help if they are struggling. Connecting with other parents who have experienced similar struggles can be helpful in understanding the impact of vicarious trauma. It can also provide a sense of hope and comfort. Additionally, seeking out professional help from a therapist can be beneficial in managing the effects of vicarious trauma. Being in the midst of the struggle, parents are often unable to comprehend the wide-ranging impacts of the trauma they are facing. Relying on outside professional help can bring clarity to a situation and help you work on all of the challenges that come from secondary traumatic stress. 

Vicarious trauma can take such a toll on your mental, emotional, and physical health. It is important for parents to be aware of the effects of vicarious trauma and to explore ways to receive support if they are struggling. It takes courage to be vulnerable and admit that you might need help. Having that discernment to recognize the need for help is present is not you showing signs of being weak; it’s actually the opposite. Being open and honest with yourself and your family is the most effective way for you to help your family who is dealing with this stressor. By connecting with other parents and seeking professional help, parents can better understand the impact of vicarious trauma and learn healthy coping strategies.