Having worked for several decades with those who have experienced complex traumatic events such as war, disaster and genocide, and the aftermath of childhood trauma, I am always amazed at the capacity of many individuals to redefine their lives and psychologically grow out of adversity. Traumatic events are integral to human functioning and we broadly have two ways of making sense of such events: we can use it as a springboard for change and ultimate growth, or strive to return to the lives we knew pre trauma. Attempting to return to pre trauma functioning is likely to leave us vulnerable to chronic posttraumatic distress and set up behaviours that avoid warning signs rather than engaging with the opportunity to develop new skills to prepare us for the next event. Trauma has a complex footprint. One of these is transgenerational transference of coping styles including the use of violence and anger to deal with life stressors. One of my students and I have recently conducted a study with young people in the juvenile justice system. Every single one of the participants had experienced some kind of childhood trauma – either through violence, drugs or neglect.
I think we as a society can do much more to break that transgenerational negative cycle.
Trauma can be a positive springboard for growth and this is the case for both victims and perpetrators of traumatic acts. Many acts of violence are caused by poor emotional regulation. Children are particularly at risk of learning poor emotional regulation when they are exposed to adults who use acts of violence to deal with stress, and so the cycle goes on. Once we are able to emotionally regulate in difficult situations, we are able to take stock and move forward.
One of the areas I focus on is domestic violence. We know that if a person experiences domestic violence in childhood they are twice as likely to become a perpetrator or a victim. That statistic is stark, and complicates the statistics around domestic violence. Often there is a need in therapy to unravel early life history and heal childhood betrayal trauma before the individual can build a new way of engaging in healthy and safe intimate relationships. It does not excuse adult behaviour but fosters understanding for reparation and growth.
I also work closely with those in frontline response careers: military, humanitarian, police, and health personnel. The prevalence of domestic violence in frontline personnel is higher than the community. More research is needed to understand the complex and cumulative exposure to traumatic events and personal threat in the course of daily working life and how this impacts on intimate and family violence.
My greatest passion is providing children with the opportunity to have healthy attachments free of abuse and violence, so that they grow into respectful adults who are able to problem solve, debate and exchange ideas without a need to retaliate. This includes providing healthy psychological environments for children rescued from human trafficking, refugee children and asylum seekers so that they are provided with the best opportunities to grow and give back to future generations of children.
Professor Lynne McCormack is both a clinician and a researcher with over 48 publications in the field of complex trauma and posttraumatic growth. Her therapeutic work has spanned over three decades primarily working with those exposed to complex high-risk environments or political and family/childhood trauma.
The unique stories of psychological growth that have emerged for many of her clients, despite exposure to horrific and catastrophic events, led to her research interest in the coexisting relationship between negative and positive effects of complex trauma. Current research projects include: the use of phone apps for engaging behaviour change and reducing reoffending in those who have received an ADVO; looking beyond PTSD for understanding reintegration difficulties in both military and humanitarian international returnees; exploring transgenerational family violence particularly in reoffenders; the ‘lived’ experience of refugee status and developing posttraumatic growth protocols in therapeutic practice.
As an International Delegate for the Red Cross I support front-line workers in war and disaster zones training them in resilience and self-care. I am currently engaged in training support carers working in Uganda with children and families exposed to child trafficking and child sacrifice.