I know that look! – empathy and trauma-consciousness

There was an interview with Hannah Anderson on the Today Show this morning.  She is the young girl who was kidnapped 2 months ago by a family friend after he killed her mother and brother.  She disclosed that prior to the kidnapping, he had made some inappropriate comments to her signaling jealousy and lusting for her.  She said she did not tell her parents because he was her dad’s best friend and there for her mom a lot…  The signs were present, but hidden out of (what I read as) fear of pushing out a support, respect for her parents’ friendship choices, and possibly a hint of worry in not being believed.  This scares me.  It scares me on many levels.  While the push is for kids to return to being more respectful because they are disrespectful so often, I wonder if sometimes we need to stress to our kids that they need to stand up and be heard.  Was there a fear that she would not be believed because he seemed like such a valued friend?  Did she have a contentious relationship with her parents (like most teenagers do as they work on individualization) that lent itself to her not being believed if she would have said anything?  Did she fear her parent’s reactions to any accusations of impropriety on the part of this friend?

I think back to the accusations made by some of the kids I used to work with.  I think of how, while they were investigated by DCF, the attitudes of the staff were mostly ones of “closing ranks” to protect the person accused.  How often do we ignore the things kids are telling us?  Part of it comes from our own fears.  We don’t want to think that the people we trust (either in work or in life) can actually be that scary.  We put fail-safes in place for organizations that work with kids, so we expect a higher level of safety.  But what about with friends?  How can you ever be sure?  I don’t want to be paranoid, but I do want to encourage parents to listen to your kids even if it means asking friends and family some really uncomfortable questions.  I do not have children yet (or maybe ever, who knows) but I will always encourage the kids in my family to speak out.  If something scares you or makes you uncomfortable, come out and say it.  Say it until someone hears you.  Say it to whoever you need to tell, however many times it takes to be heard.  Say it in whatever way you can find to say it…  I can only imagine how difficult this would have been for Hannah to say to anyone (especially since she revealed that she was having difficulties with her mother during her parents’ divorce and turned to this guy for support).  He creeped her out with some comments, so she tried to distance from him.  This tipped him over the edge.  It pushed him to do unthinkable things to her family in order to get close to her again.  I can only imagine the guilt she must hold… (or, I would hold incredible guilt if I were in her position).

On another note about the interview; I hate that our culture is so heavy on hugging without express permission.  While I see the value of human touch, it needs to be comfortable and consensual.  Savanah brought out the hikers that had spotted Hannah and her kidnapper.  She told Hannah that they wanted to give her a hug.  The look on Hannah’s face was incredibly telling about her trauma reaction to the thought of having a stranger near enough to touch her.  Her face dropped into fear and confusion: this was a live tv interview.  I still panic and cringe at the thought of touch from a stranger and my traumas happened over a decade ago.  When the two couples came out and started to hug in succession, she looked visibly uncomfortable with the hugs from the women, but she looked panicked and kept her distance with the men.  I know they were trying to be supportive, but I think they would have been more supportive by knowing some basic trauma reactions (especially with bodily assault).  Showing up and meeting face to face is probably somewhat helpful (for both the people who helped in her rescue and for Hannah), but the physical touch seemed to have been a huge trigger for this poor girl who had only had 2 months to deal with all of this.  I may be reading a lot of extra into her reactions, but I think some of it is also valid.  I think we need to train not only first responders in trauma reactions, but we need to train the media.  Many times, their pushing and “facilitating” simply exacerbate the trauma reaction.  I’m pretty sure they are not intending to make things worse for people, but they do so none the less…

While hugs are meant to be supportive (and most often are), to someone with a history of assault or trauma, a touch can be horrendously triggering.  Asking permission before invading someone’s personal space is always a good idea when you don’t know the person well or when they have a history of trauma.  Be aware that they may say no, and it likely has nothing to do with you.

I know I shouldn’t be so bothered by this, it feels like I’m taking it all too personally.  I’m raw these days though, and little things make me cringe.  The intense empathy I feel for this kid in today’s interview comes from having opened up a lot of my own little trauma boxes lately.   On top of the overwhelming depression, a lot of the old wounds have been “picked at” and are once again a breath away.  (and the protective side of me is out wanting to help shield this girl from the crap I’m sure is washing over her.  I hate to see anyone in pain, and she is certainly in pain).


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