Trauma, Triggers and Politics: Why popular appeals don’t hold up

(In the immortal words of Michael Scott – “This is a place of compassion and understanding, so you should just get the hell out.”)

I work as a behavioral youth counselor with teens who suffer from severe behavioral and emotional disorders. The youths I work with live in a residential treatment facility where they stay until they complete a course of therapy. Therapy is court-ordered and ranges in length from several months to several years. The only way these youths will succeed in life is if they learn how to control their impulses and cope successfully with life’s challenges, which is what I help them to do.

To end up in residential treatment, most youths have committed multiple felonies, including assault, arson, rape, sexual assault, theft, and drug abuse. Of the youths we encounter in our network, 70%  have experienced at least one form of serious trauma; 20% have experienced as many as five forms. Forms of trauma include physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, isolation, deprivation, and witness to violence.

To best instruct these young people, we use what is called trauma-informed treatment: we read the background of each youth to determine the specific nature of his trauma. We interview him and create a personal trauma narrative. We have the youth fill out questionnaires to indicate the circumstances that reminds him of his trauma. We ask the youth to describe specific indicators that he has been triggered. By doing this, the staff gain insight into the situations that may trigger a traumatic memory. Staff can also prepare for the specific responses such triggers evoke.

Anything can be a trigger. Triggers range from raised voices to seeing others out of control to being in a room alone. Some youths are triggered by smells, others by a time of day, others by an article of clothing. Imagine the triggers you would develop from being raped in a car by a person in a leather jacket, or by watching your parent be beaten with pots and pans in the kitchen, or by being burned by your guardian with cigarettes, or by being locked in a closet without food for hours on end. Imagine watching one of your parents be murdered by robbers in your own home. All of these are real cases of trauma, and each contains its associated trigger.

When a youth is triggered his behavior becomes irrational and unmanageable. In most cases he will fight, flee or freeze. Youths become hostile and defiant or submissive and withdrawn. Some attempt to harm themselves; some attempt to harm others. Some curl into a ball and urinate and defecate on themselves; some flee with all their might.

As a counselor, I have to understand the triggers of each youth I work with. This understanding helps me treat their irrationality with compassion and shepherd them through their day with minimal distress. But the crux of my job is to educate the youth that triggers are not entitlements. Triggers explain behavior; they do not excuse it. The object of their treatment is to learn to cope successfully with emotions, to exercise self control, and to own their actions in every situation. Our lesson to the youths is that you cannot eliminate triggers from life – you must control your behavior despite them.

From the perspective of my work, it is alarming to see what’s happening on college campuses across the country. From the recent protests at Yale and Mizzou, to the infatuation with “trigger warnings” on controversial literature, to the insistence on “safe spaces” in which certain ideas cannot be shared, America is succumbing to the message that other people are responsible for your reactions. If this is true, then free expression is impermissible. It must end at the point of personal discomfort.

But this message contradicts the basic tenets of positive behavioral therapy. It eschews personal responsibility and self control and promotes blame and victimhood. What was once the most liberal of ideas – the freedom to express any idea without the fear of persecution – is now the bane of the modern liberal, who uses politics to mute those with uncomfortable opinions.

When language and concepts are abused, as they currently are, it is easy to obscure the irresponsibility of this message. By conflating the clinical meaning of terms like trauma and triggers with the non-clinical conditions of discomfort and offense, we vindicate the notion that they are entitlements. If one is triggered by the trauma of free expression, rather than merely offended by the discomfort, then one is justified in attacking it with force, whether with physical violence or administrative power.

But a violent reaction is never justified against a non-violent interlocutor – at least not from a counseling perspective. Youths in behavioral treatment are taught that even in the worst scenarios – when hate speech is targeted at them personally  – they are accountable for their actions. When you react to hate speech, you give the other person control. You forfeit your personal power and become a slave to your reaction. I’ve seen abused fifteen-year-olds grasp this concept: it is disappointing to see so-called “normal adults” turn away from it.

As always, the political arena ignores the fundamentals of personal responsibility and cooperation. In the absence of these pillars, it looks to the political means of problem solving: force and violence. If we know enough to teach our children better, perhaps we’d do best to lead by example.






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