For those who have suffered complex trauma, all is not lost!

There are many reasons why Christians may be tempted to downplay or minimize the impact of complex trauma on adult survivors. However, such attempts to deny the far-reaching and long-lasting impact of childhood complex trauma exposure can inadvertently serve to cheapen God’s amazing grace that offers forgiveness and cleansing for both the offended and offender, depreciate the wisdom of God’s created order that was designed to provide children with the optimum conditions for thriving, and can leave victims with unrealistic expectations regarding the speed of recovery and the extent to which the damages suffered can be reversed or ameliorated.

There is an alternative.

We can acknowledge the inestimable and devastating impact of complex trauma on the soul of a child and in the same breath thank God that in His wisdom, He charged parents with the responsibility to protect and nurture their young, warning against the choice to abuse or neglect a child.

We can praise the God of the universe who, unlike those who may have abused or neglected their positions of authority and power, stands at the door and knocks, waiting for us to invite Him in so that He might bind up our broken hearts and set us free from all that keeps us bound up in fear.

We can thank God for the provisions God has made to keep children alive and intact in the face of horrendous abuse or soul deadening neglect through such mechanisms as dissociation.

We can thank God for providing safe people who are willing to courageously and sacrificially bear witness to the painful realities of complex trauma, persons who refuse to talk survivors out of their pain or to rush them along in their journey toward wholeness, but instead look to God to set the pace.

We can thank God that He is worthy of the trust of survivors who, if they desire to get well, will be required to invite the Worthy One into those painful places that they have worked a lifetime to deny or keep hidden.

We can thank God for the gift of forgiveness as a powerful means of containing the devastating effects of complex trauma so that those victimized are able to break sinful bonds that may have been formed by trauma, hatred or resentment, or sexual abuse.

We can thank God for the finished work of the cross, where survivors were given a new identity that is not based on anything that may have been done to the survivor (i.e., child physical abuse, child emotional abuse, child sexual abuse, child ritual abuse) or not done to the sufferer (i.e., neglect or a failure to be cherished and delighted in); or anything a survivor may have done or failed to do in response to their abuse.

As we consider the power of lies that were unwarily embraced in the context of abuse or neglect – to bring devastation to the lives of survivors, we can stand in awe of the power of God’s truth to set the captives free as those lies are exposed and replaced with truth!

We can thank God for His provision through the body of Christ, for survivors to become members of God’s forever forgiven family, where they can experience true community, safe connection, and be reminded of who they truly are in Christ Jesus!

We can thank God that those who may have been deeply impacted by complex trauma can be set free from an idolatrous focus on their abusers or from a pathological insistence that those who failed to nurture them as children now fill that void in their adult lives.

Christians may be tempted to minimize the impact of complex trauma on those who continue to reel from its consequences even as these sufferers courageously seek to find in Christ and His church a place of safe connection where they can heal and be set free. The truth is that the experience of complex trauma brings with it an inestimable and incomprehensible set of soul devastating consequences that are far-reaching and long lasting. However, all is not lost! For it is into such a fray that the King of Kings and Lord of Lords marches, even as He declares, “To the depths of the devastation that my children have suffered, there does My grace much more abound.” (Coleman, 2013)

Coleman, S. A. (2013). The forgiveness clinic: A Christ-centered counseling approach for those who continue to suffer with unwanted anger, bitterness, or hurt associated with traumatic events of the past. The Forgiveness Clinic. Chattanooga, TN.

Post Traumatic memories buried beneath layers of denial and numbing are not hidden from God

cropped-shutterstock_119206396_Sad-Black_Man_To_Match_Happy_Of_Same.jpgIn Psalm 139, David, filled with a desire to praise God, exclaimed to His Maker, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?” (New American Standard Bible, 1995, Psalm 139:7) “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will overwhelm me, And the light around me will be night,’ Even the darkness is not dark to You, And the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light are alike to You”. (New American Standard Bible, 1995, Psalm 139:11-12)

If you have suffered complex trauma, you may be beginning to realize that the many puzzling symptoms you may have suffered for most of your life (i.e., dissociation, repression, total, selective, or partial amnesia, self-anesthesia, the urge to withdraw emotionally and socially, emotional constriction, an inability to feel pleasure, an avoidance of situations or emotions related to the original trauma) (Courtois, 1992) may be related to traumatic memories that still remain buried beneath layers of denial and numbing. And as a result of this realization, you may be tempted to make it the goal of your life to single-handedly recover those hidden memories. However, such a goal may result in only more heart-ache.

God knows what happened to you and He is perfectly capable of bringing to the surface any memories you may need to know about, when you are ready to face them, so that you can heal. Why not invite Christ to continue to ready you for the work that may be ahead, even as you pray with the Psalmist (David): “Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; And see if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way. (New American Standard Bible, 1995, Psalm 139:23–24) (Coleman, 2013)

Courtois, C. A. (1992). The Memory Retrieval Process in Incest Survivor Therapy. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 1(1), 15-31. doi: 10.1300/J070v01n01_02

New American Standard Bible. (1995). (1995 update ed.). LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.

Coleman, S. A. (2013). The forgiveness clinic: A Christ-centered counseling approach for those who continue to suffer with unwanted anger, bitterness, or hurt associated with traumatic events of the past. The Forgiveness Clinic. Chattanooga, TN.

If you experienced incest as a child there may be another explanation for your continued suffering (other than a failure to forgive)

cropped-sad_child_at_a_stone_wall.jpgHaving exhausted medical treatment alternatives, many who pray for God to heal them from depression, anxiety, or any number of other disorders, continue to suffer. In such cases, they may be tempted to believe one of any number of lies: (1) that there is no God; (2) that if there is a God and if He heard their prayers, that God is capricious, granting the requests of some, while ignoring the pleas of others; (3) that if there is a God who is just and righteous, who answers the prayers of His people, then either they did not pray correctly, or they have some unconfessed sin that prevents God from granting their request. However, there may be another explanation for their continued suffering, if in fact they suffered incest as a child. According to Courtois (1992), children who have experienced incest often suffer untreated Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Their untreated PTSD may follow one of three courses: the symptoms naturally diminish over a period of time; the PTSD lies dormant for years, emerging later as a reaction to life events or triggers; or it continuously impacts the individual over their entire lifespan, though often without the survivor’s conscious awareness.

Courtois, C. A. (1992). The Memory Retrieval Process in Incest Survivor Therapy. Journal Of Child Sexual Abuse, 1(1), 15-31. doi: 10.1300/J070v01n01_02

What is complex trauma and how does it relate to complex forgiveness?

cropped-shutterstock_84358198_Sad_White_Woman.jpgNote from Author: Below is an excerpt from an unpublished manuscript (Coleman, 2013) that argues for the designation “complex forgiveness” to describe the unique challenges faced by those who have experienced what is being coined “complex trauma” or “complex PTSD” and are sincerely seeking to work through their forgiveness issues. It is being posted on both the web site and referenced as a hyperlink on the web site, since it pertains to both domains.

The term “complex trauma” (J. Briere & Lanktree, 2008) (D’Andrea & Pole, 2012) (Lanktree & Briere, 2008) (Aideuis, 2007) (J. N. Briere & Lanktree, 2012) (Arvidson et al., 2011) or “complex post-traumatic stress disorder” (Herman, 1997) (Resick, Nishith, & Griffin, 2003) (Dyer et al., 2009) is a term that is being used by a growing number of clinicians to describe those instances where a person’s experience of trauma and the resulting symptoms do not fit the traditional diagnosis of “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD). Lanktree and Briere (2008), for example, described complex trauma in terms of “multiple, and sometimes highly invasive traumatic events, usually of an ongoing, interpersonal nature” (p. 8) which are often accompanied by harmful social environments, experiences of emotional neglect, and repeated exposure to physical, psychological, or sexual abuse and/or family violence.

Proponents of a diagnostic category of complex trauma or complex PTSD argue for such a diagnosis primarily because the existing diagnostic criteria for PTSD was derived primarily from studies of survivors who were exposed to a relatively limited or circumscribed experience of trauma such as combat, rape, or a disaster (Herman, 1997). However, for survivors who have been exposed to severe and prolonged trauma such as repetitive childhood physical, psychological, and/or sexual abuse, (Lanktree & Briere, 2008) and/or continuing experiences of domestic violence or attachment trauma (Courtois, 2004) (Lanktree & Briere, 2008), or for those who have been subjected to totalitarian control over a period of months or years, such as is often true of prisoners of war, hostages, concentration-camp survivors, or survivors of organized sexual exploitation (Herman, 1997); or even for persons who have suffered with an acute or chronic illness that has required intensive, often painful, ongoing medical interventions; the diagnosis of PTSD seems insufficient (Herman, 1997).

Why is this important? Because current research is indicating that that those who meet the criteria for a diagnosis of complex trauma (as compared to those who meet the criteria for PTSD) are more likely to suffer lifelong problems that can put them at greater risk for addictive disorders, psychiatric disorders, chronic medical illness, family, legal and vocational problems and additional trauma exposure which naturally can make the journey toward healing more challenging (Cook et al., 2005).

These and other factors make any attempt at forgiveness for those who have suffered complex trauma especially challenging, complex, and subject to misunderstanding. This is because the examples of forgiveness that most often make the Christian talk shows and readily form the basis for books on forgiveness are rarely representative of those who have suffered complex trauma.

It is for this reason that I am suggesting the term “complex forgiveness” as a way to frame the unique journey faced by those who continue to suffer in the aftermath of having experienced complex trauma, persons who may truly desire to forgive those responsible for their suffering and who may have sincerely experimented with a number of different methods of forgiving prescribed by well-meaning authors and speakers, and yet, who continue to suffer in inexplicable ways that, from a simplistic and misinformed point of view, appear to put into question the sincerity of their decision(s) to forgive.

It is my hope that this book will become a valuable resource for you, as you seek to help others who are experiencing difficulty working through their forgiveness issues, or as you seek to work through your own trauma history, whether the trauma suffered happens to fall closer on the spectrum to that of a relatively circumscribed experience of trauma or whether it falls closer on the continuum to what is being coined complex trauma. (Coleman, 2013)

Aideuis, D. (2007). Promoting Attachment and Emotional Regulation of Children with Complex Trauma Disorder. [Article]. International Journal of Behavioral Consultation & Therapy, 3(4), 546-554.

Arvidson, J., Kinniburgh, K., Howard, K., Spinazzola, J., Strothers, H., Evans, M., . . . Blaustein, M. E. (2011). Treatment of Complex Trauma in Young Children: Developmental and Cultural Considerations in Application of the ARC Intervention Model. [Article]. Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma, 4(1), 34-51. doi: 10.1080/19361521.2011.545046

Briere, J., & Lanktree, C. (2008). Integrative treatment of complex trauma for adolescents (ITCT-A): A guide for the treatment of multiply-traumatized youth. Long Beach, CA: MCAVIC-USC, National Child Traumatic Stress Network, US Department of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Briere, J. N., & Lanktree, C. B. (2012). Treating complex trauma in adolescents and young adults. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Coleman, S. A. (2013). The forgiveness clinic: A Christ-centered counseling approach for those who continue to suffer with unwanted anger, bitterness, or hurt associated with traumatic events of the past. The Forgiveness Clinic. Chattanooga, TN.

Cook, A., Spinazzola, J., Ford, J., Lanktree, C., Blaustein, M., Cloitre, M., . . . van der Kolk, B. (2005). Complex Trauma in Children and Adolescents. Psychiatric Annals, 35(5), 390-398.

Courtois, C. A. (2004). Complex Trauma, Complex Reactions: Assessment and Treatment. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 41(4), 412-425. doi: 10.1037/0033-3204.41.4.412

D’Andrea, W., & Pole, N. (2012). A naturalistic study of the relation of psychotherapy process to changes in symptoms, information processing, and physiological activity in complex trauma. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 4(4), 438-446. doi: 10.1037/a0025067

Dyer, K. F. W., Dorahy, M. J., Hamilton, G., Corry, M., Shannon, M., MacSherry, A., . . . McElhill, B. (2009). Anger, aggression, and self-harm in PTSD and complex PTSD. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65(10), 1099-1114. doi: 10.1002/jclp.20619

Herman, J. (1997). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence – from domestic abuse to political terror. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Lanktree, C., & Briere, J. (2008). Integrative Treatment of Complex Trauma for Children (ITCT-C): A Guide for the Treatment of Multiply Traumatized Children Aged Eight to Twelve Years. Unpublished treatment manual. Long Beach, CA: MCAVIC-USC Child and Adolescent Trauma Program, National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

Resick, P. A., Nishith, P., & Griffin, M. G. (2003). How well does cognitive-behavioral therapy treat symptoms of complex PTSD? An examination of child sexual abuse survivors within a clinical trial. CNS Spectr, 8(5), 340-355.

Seven domains of impairment those who have suffered complex trauma as children may endure

cropped-snarling_child_212556.jpgCook et al. (2005) describe seven domains in which those who have suffered complex trauma as children may experience impairment:

(1) the domain of attachment (i.e., problems with distrust and suspiciousness, perspective taking, boundary setting, social isolation, difficulty attuning to the emotional state of another);

(2) the domain of biology (i.e., problems with somatization, sensorimotor development, and an increase in medical problems across a wide span which might include pelvic pain, skin problems, pseudoseizures, autoimmune disorders, and asthma);

(3) the domain of affect regulation (i.e., difficulty being aware of internal states or describing them, problems communicating needs and wishes, difficulty putting labels on feelings and expressing them, trouble with emotional self-regulation;

(4) the domain of dissociation (i.e., alterations in states of consciousness that are distinct, depersonalization, derealization, two or more distinct states of consciousness, impaired memory of state-based events, amnesia);

(5) the domain of behavior control (i.e., self-destructive behavior, poor modulation of impulses, aggression tendencies toward others, sleep disturbances, self-soothing behaviors that are pathological, eating disorders, excessive compliance, substance abuse, difficulties understanding and then complying with rules, trauma reenactment in behavior or play);

(6) the domain of cognition (i.e., problems with the processing of new information, difficulty focusing on and completing tasks, trouble with object constancy, challenges with sustained curiosity, difficulty with attention regulation, problems with planning/anticipating, difficulty understanding responsibility, problems with language development, learning difficulties);

(7) the domain of self-concept (i.e., a poor sense of separateness, low self-esteem, lack of a continuous and predictable sense of self, disturbances of body image, struggles with guilt and shame).

Each of these impairments will be separately discussed in detail in future posts, especially as they relate to the challenges faced by complex trauma survivors as they seek to work through forgiveness issues and heal.

Cook, A., Spinazzola, J., Ford, J., Lanktree, C., Blaustein, M., Cloitre, M., . . . van der Kolk, B. (2005). Complex Trauma in Children and Adolescents. Psychiatric Annals, 35(5), 390-398.

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