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No 'manual' for how kids recover after trauma

  • Dr. Brian Russell is a forensic psychologist and attorney
  • He says we shouldn't assume that the Alabama boy will be either scarred for life or completely unaffected after his kidnapping
  • He also explains how other kidnapping victims have reacted in the past and why family support is crucial
No 'manual' for how kids recover after trauma
Dr. Brian Russell

Editor’s note: Dr. Brian Russell is a licensed forensic psychologist and attorney at law. He is also the co-host of “Fatal Vows” on Investigation Discovery. He is on Twitter.

When I learned on Monday that a 5-year-old Alabama boy was rescued from an underground bunker where he spent six days after being kidnapped from his school bus and witnessing the bus driver’s murder, one thing came to mind: “There is no manual” for trying to readjust to life after a trauma like that.

Thankfully, law enforcement has indicated that the boy was not seriously physically harmed during captivity. Still, there is no “manual” for psychological intervention following such ordeals because of their relative rarity and variability.

Law enforcement has, appropriately, been tight-lipped about the boy’s psychological condition and in addition to concern for the boy’s and his family’s privacy, it’s actually difficult to assess the full psychological impact of such an ordeal this early.

Assessment in this particular case may also be complicated by the fact that the boy reportedly has Asperger’s Syndrome, a relatively high-functioning form of autism characterized in part by difficulty relating to others emotionally. So, without first-hand knowledge of how the boy is doing at this time, I can offer you the following.

First, the good news: There is little reason to presume either that the perpetrator was “sick” or that the victim will now be irreparably “scarred” for life (psychologically if not physically). Just as there are many reasons why people commit crimes, there’s a lot of variation in how people process traumatic experiences.

Not every victim needs to be in long-term, or even short-term, psychotherapy, and children tend to be particularly psychologically resilient. People who’ve been through similar, even longer, ordeals as children have gone on to live what they report to be “normal,” happy lives. Jaycee Dugard comes to mind, as does Elizabeth Smart, who was held captive for nine months. Thirty-year-old survivor Katie Beers, 20 years after her ordeal, even reportedly said, “The kidnapping was the best thing that ever happened to me” (because, once rescued, she didn’t have to return to a home in which she had suffered prior abuse). Beers’ statement highlights the range of perspectives that survivors can have.

Now, the bad news: While we can all hope for his resilience, this Alabama boy’s tribulation certainly could be an ongoing long- or short-term nightmare for him, literally and figuratively. Even if he appears highly resilient in the short term, some survivors experience residual complications weeks, months or years after the trauma.

At just 5 years old, he witnessed the deaths of both the bus driver and the kidnapper, and in between, he experienced the terror of being kidnapped. It’s not yet clear exactly what happened in that bunker, but presumably, at the very least, the boy was frightened beyond anything any child should ever have to experience. In the short term, survivors of such experiences are often irrationally fearful that their ordeals aren’t really over. Some feel irrational guilt, as if they’re somehow to blame for their affliction. And some even have confused feelings of anger and compassion toward the perpetrators.

Just as youth can be an asset in terms of emotional resilience, it can be a liability in terms of emotional confusion, and any pre-existing limitations on one’s ability to relate emotionally (e.g. autism) could compound such emotional confusion.

Being in a safe place, surrounded by loved ones, and receiving assurances of both safety and unconditional love can be among the most critical ways of helping to maximize the survivors’ resilience in the short term.

A mental status assessment by a professional can then provide the victim and family with specific guidance in addressing acute issues while providing the professional with a “baseline” against which to compare future changes in the victim. The professional can then serve as an objective progress monitor and continue or resume intervention, as any number of complications may develop, like nightmares, chronic fears or confused feelings toward the perpetrator.

Interestingly, in terms of emotional confusion, the duration of this boy’s kidnapping may also have worked to his advantage to the extent that the initially adrenaline-fueled perpetrator may have calmed down over time and began to see the boy as a human being, rather than a mere “tool” to draw attention to the perpetrator’s “grievances” -- something of a “reverse Stockholm effect” -- making the perpetrator emotionally conflicted about how to end the standoff and contributing to the success of the rescue.

Bottom line: A victim’s psychological needs following an ordeal such as this have to be assessed and addressed one day at a time. And because the victim’s family’s support can be instrumental in determining the victim’s outcome, it’s important for family members to recognize the extent to which they, too, experienced a trauma as the victim’s ordeal unfolded. For the family members, then, taking care of themselves psychologically -- in a manner similar to the outline above -- can be an important part of taking care of the victim.

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