The trauma we experience in our work with child sexual abuse, sexual abuse images and videos, and the sexual exploitation of children, impacts our lives in many ways, including our beliefs. This work can change our beliefs about ourselves, about other people, and about how we make sense of the world and our place in it. We often talk or joke about how we trust few people, and they are typically people with whom we work and our families. We understand that what we see in our work gives us more information than most people have about the risks for the children in our lives and the terrible things some people do to children. We often use that information to rescue children from abusive situations, to protect them from future harm, and to hold those who have harmed them accountable. This is a wonderful use of the information we have. It changes the world for the better in every way.
However, we sometimes use that information to build a generalized distrust of others, that might be undeserved, to limit our contact with other people because we believe that most people pose a risk to our children, or to support a view of the world that expects evil, rather than good, from those around us. A colleague who works in ICAC recently described an experience she had at an airport. She saw a young man holding a small child on his lap engaging in playful interaction with her. She said she stopped walking and sat where she could observe the man and child, assuming, as she did so, that he was grooming the child to abuse her.
Fortunately, as she was waiting to catch the man abusing the child, she had a realization: the man might not be planning to abuse the child. He might be a good father, who loves his daughter, and is playing with her to pass the time at the airport. My colleague did an amazing thing: she caught herself believing the worst of someone based on her experiences at work. And, she decided to allow herself to imagine the possibility that fathers she did not know personally, might love and care for their children in healthy and supportive ways. She chose to acknowledge and honor the possibility of good parenting rather than letting her worst cases in ICAC limit her view of the world. She did something that Rendon would call creating a new narrative1. She saw how she was thinking based on the trauma she experienced regularly at work and was able transform her thinking about what parents might do with their children. This ability to create a different way to think about our traumatic experiences, to transform them, sometimes results in what social scientists call post-traumatic growth. It doesn’t mean that we deny the trauma we see every day, but it does mean that we can use that experience to enrich our lives, rather than shrink or harm them.
This ability to utilize transformational meaning is the tool, coupled with our use of social support, that allows us to fully integrate our traumatic experiences in a way that allows us to view the world, ourselves, and others in a way that recognizes the trauma we see, but is not totally defined by it. This is what allows post-traumatic growth, the experience that allows us to be stronger, wiser, and better people as a result of our traumatic experience. Some of us will build new narratives from being able to observe our disturbing, and often inaccurate narratives and correct them on our own. Some of us will build them out of the knowledge that the work we do does make the world a better place. And some of us will build them around the strength or resilience we see in some of the victims we have worked with, who manage to grow despite the harm they have experienced, to thrive regardless of how they have been hurt.
Many of us, who have so many innate strengths with which we approach our work, do this creation of new narratives unconsciously. We recognize that we approach the trauma we see because it allows us to rescue children, to stop the bad guys, to make a difference. The strongest new narratives are created consciously, out of our own experiences of trauma, as ways to transform them into something that gives us hope, rather than despair for the state of humanity, empowers us to feel like we can make a difference, rather than feeling powerless at the size of the problem or that allows us to see the good in people as well as the bad.
In hopes that you will recognize the positive narratives you have built for yourselves and focus on building new ones as you face new trauma each day at work, I will leave you with one of my favorite examples of transformational meaning. And thank you, always, for the work you do to protect our children.
So, ring the bell that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in,
That’s how the light gets in.
- Rendon, J. (2015). Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth, Touchstone.
Jean G. McAllister, MSW
Jean is an independent consultant and trainer with her own business, JGM Consulting LLC, and has more than 30 years of experience working to address trauma and interpersonal violence. Her work has focused on sexual assault, child abuse and sexual abuse, domestic violence, trauma and victimization, offender dynamics, secondary trauma intervention, stress management, organizational development and policy development.