Complex Trauma – A Case Study



Straits Times recently reported[1]a spike in the number of child abuse cases, both physical and sexual, in 2018. The article highlighted two girls who were sexually violated by their biological father when their mother was at work. The father raped the older girl, who was 15, several times since she was in primary school. He apologised to her each time and made her keep secret from her mother. He also sexually abused her 11-year-old sister, leaving her angry and embarrassed. The older girl eventually told their mother, who reported him to the police. The girls were temporarily placed in a children’s home for their safety. Since then both children needed help to deal with the trauma, and their mother was counselled on how to keep them safe at home. The man has yet to be sentenced.

These two children are victims of complex trauma, defined as repeated exposure to traumatic events[2], in this case, ongoing sexual violations by their own caregiver. The effects of complex trauma on the victims are complicated – the victim’s sense of self, their emotional competence, perceptions of others and ability to form and maintain relationship can be deeply damaged[3].

In our experiences treating complex trauma, victims may experience really painful, complex, and difficult-to-make-sense thoughts and emotions. First, there may be resentment towards the mother (a care giver) who were not there to protect or didn’t see the warning signs even after it had happened. Second, the victims may feel resentment towards their own selves – that perhaps they asked for it, or they were not strong enough to resist or fight back. Some of them even feel this intense guilt that at some point, they had enjoyed aspects of the act. Third, victims may blame themselves for reporting the abuse. This had led to the disintegration of the family unit and caused the father to go to jail. Lastly, these inner experiences may contribute to the victims’ difficulty in trusting others and being intimate in close relationships.

Even though the healing process can be long and challenging, it is possible to heal. Emotion-Focused Therapy (EFT) is an evidence-based therapeutic intervention for complex trauma. This model prioritises emotion. The EFT therapist helps clients access and express their emotions in the context of a safe and supporting therapeutic relationship. In the case of complex trauma, we often help the client confronts the perpetrator, in what we call imaginal confrontation. This often helps the victim feels the emotion of anger, which he/she may not be able to access ordinarily. Therefore by “activating” the victim’s anger, it eventually transforms the feeling of helplessness, intense sadness, and guilt. EFT transforms emotions with emotion.

To learn more about complex trauma and how Emotion-Focused Therapy treats complex trauma, join our upcoming workshops in May 2019, Introduction to Complex Trauma and Emotion-Focused Therapy for Complex Trauma.