S2 E2: Dr. Claudia Black on How Childhood Trauma Affects Young Adults

Today, I’m joined again by Dr. Claudia Black, the clinical architect of the Claudia Black Center or CBC in Wickenburg, Arizona. As a pioneer in treating trauma and families, how does she think that young adults and the challenges they face have changed – or not changed – in her four decades in this work? You can learn more about Dr. Black’s team at CBC, visit claudiablackcenter.com.

Click here to listen to part one of our conversation with Claudia Black.

Podcast Transcript

David Condos: It’s my pleasure to welcome back Dr. Claudia Black. Thank you so much for being with us.

Claudia: Thank you, David. Good to see you again.

David: Yes. In the previous episode, you shared some of your personal story, some of the background you had growing up in a family with addiction, your own experience with that and how that has led to the past 40 plus years of you writing about and teaching about and helping other people understand that and heal from that. That’s bridges this into this part of the conversation looking at young adults. You have the Claudia Black Young Adult Center here on the Meadows campus in Wickenburg, Arizona. The first question I have about that is why a young adult center or why does there need to be a center that specifically looks at people 18 to 26?

Claudia: I’ve been consulting at the Meadows for actually 21 years. It was probably about five to seven years ago, they began to recognize that they have a high percentage of young adults coming in that wasn’t necessarily true 10 years ago, 15 years ago. What they realized is with this age population that we now defined as 18 to 26, that one, there were a lot more behavioral problems and that it was becoming very easy for the staff to spend more time just reacting to the behavioral problems. For the young person to really get the benefit of the treatment program.

David: That masks what’s going on-

Claudia: Yes.

David: -is if you see all this behavior, it’s like well you’re just putting out those fires?

Claudia: Yes. With that, the Meadows made the decision that they felt that there were enough young adults that they could put them into their own community. One of the things that we know is that young adults are very strongly influenced by their peers and that can certainly be a negative influence but it can equally be if not more so a positive influence. The question was we don’t just take a program for the older adults and put it on top of this young adult and somehow assume that that’s what’s going to be effective. What we did is we created as really a different structure to the day.

One is that we do a lot more experiential work with young adults. With young adults, they’re going to tune you out if you talk longer than three or four minutes. You’re not going to stand up and do a lecture that you might do in a treatment program with people 30, 40, 50 years of age. We took a look at the various things that still need to be talked about, which are oftentimes the same things for any treatment program but how can we explore this with young adults in a way that’s meaningful for them?

In a way that garner’s them some insight in a way that helps break their denial, helps break their resistance, helps them tap into where their strengths and their resiliency is and helps them be motivated to live their life differently. It’s a difficult age group. It’s difficult because for the most part, young adults don’t want to be in treatment. They’ve gotten themselves in trouble but they don’t think it warrants necessarily going to a treatment program so they’re not necessarily wanting to be there. I’ve always said this about adult children is that age group 18 to 25, that’s not the time in your life when you wanting to stop and be retrospective about what’s going on in your life.

You’re moving on. You’re making decisions and you’re expanding. Again, it’s not a time for introspection. A lot of the acting out just takes a slightly different form. One person uses a substance and the other person starves themselves. One person uses a substance and the other person self harms. The trauma is a signature piece for the work that we do with the Meadows and the Claudia Black program. You see so much trauma with the addicted person. We see a lot of sexual assault for the addict to substance use to clients that come in. You see people come from histories of physical abuse or maybe histories as a child of sexual abuse.

A lot of the underlying trauma issues are very much the same, irrespective of what their diagnosis is for coming in.

David: You were just talking about some of those trauma issues. Do you say that that’s different than people who are over 26? Is there a distinction there in the types of trauma?

Claudia: I think that for the young adult population, the most clear distinction for the types of trauma have to do with cyberbullying. The young adults I work with, they’ve grown up with the internet. If you’re raised in an addictive home, you may have bullying that goes on within that family setting and bullying has been with us for a very long period of time. In this day and age, for my young adult population, when they go home the bullying has continued.

David: Home is not a safe place.

Claudia: It’s everywhere on social media. Everywhere on social media. Now, I’m not being bullied by the 2, 3, 4, 15 people at school, now I’m being bullied by hundreds of people if not thousands of people within the next few hours and people from all over the world saying you need to die, nobody likes you. The cyberbullying, that level of trauma is significantly different for our younger adults. I think that our younger adults have been more exposed to the opiate world than our older adults have. Our younger adults have experienced more death as a direct consequence.

I cannot tell you the stories that I hear from my young adults who are opiate users where their peers have died in their arms. Their drug-using friends have died in their arms or that they’re the ones who turned their 16-year-old brother on to heroin then that 16-year-old brother died or the girl wakes up in bed and the guy next to her that she went to bed with is dead.

David: That’s heavy grief.

Claudia: Really heavy grief. One of the things that we actually have integrated into our program is a very specific loss and grief component in the actual workshop because not only might you have in every program at the Meadows would have people of inhuman experience, may have lost somebody through death due to illness in the family or suicide in the family or addiction in the family but the opiate epidemic and direct use of heroin in particular and your fentanyl and your prescription pills, people are overdosing. I think that we’re seeing in this age group more significant loss of death than typically that older client.

David: Before we were recording, you were talking about how this trauma can snowball. One type of trauma leading to another type of trauma to another. I’m picturing just this domino effect. Could you unpack that a little bit?

Claudia: Yes.

David: Why does that work in that way?

Claudia: Let me give you an example. Let’s say you have two kids who are being bullied. One kid is raised in a rather healthy functioning family and the one that’s not. The one that’s going to be raised in the less healthy functioning family is going to feel a greater sense of victimization, is probably less apt to even talk about an effort to get help with how to deal with it and is probably not going to be able to have the skills it was to try and not take in all those messages as well. Then, now somebody gets into their own substance use disorder.

That same person didn’t grow up in the healthiest of families. Maybe some bullying has gone on. Now, they get into their own substance use disorder-

David: As a way to cope with that.

Claudia: -as a way to cope and then what happens is they’re at a party, they’re fed that rape drug and then they’re sexually assaulted then it goes viral. You can just see, it just started with just this less than healthy family to some bullying to my own substance abuse then there’s a rape and now the exposure on the internet in terms of the whole world seen what it is that’s happened. I’m unconscious. I don’t even know that this happened to me. Then I begin to perpetuate my own self-harm. The stories just go on and on.

David: You’ve touched on this a couple of times how technology can play into this and that’s something you been in this work three or four decades. That’s changed a lot, I imagine, in that time. How have you seen social media and technology fuel that?

Claudia: There’s a lot of literature today that technology, the internet, and particularly social media is having a direct impact on the skyrocketing amount of mental health disorders in young people. With the young people because they’re the ones who’ve lived with it for 20 years now or 25 years. The reason for that has a lot to do with, one is social media. Unfortunately, somebody already is vulnerable. Let’s say they come from this less than healthy-functioning family situation and they’re already vulnerable. You get on social media and you’re always in constant sense of comparison, every stuff to somebody else. You see somebody else’s good life, because that’s what it is people are posting. They’re posting all these fun, wonderful things. Today, there’s actually a phraseology that didn’t even exist until the internet, and that’s called FOMO, Fear of Missing Out. These young adults have been in a constant state now, that sense of missing out. There are already kids who are vulnerable already feeling like they don’t have a place of belonging, that they’re not good enough.

The social media is going to fuel that even more so. It fuels a sense of inadequacy, that somehow I’m supposed to be different than who I am. It makes it possible to engage in what’s called false presentations and false imaging, and now you’re getting feedback on this different persona, somebody different than who you really are, and that’s the only way you’re getting positive feedback.

David: It’s if you put that face out to the world?

Claudia: If I’m willing to put that false persona out there. What we look at is, people don’t come into the Claudia Black Center because of their connection to social media. People come in because of their depression and their anxiety. We’re taking a look at, what are their online activities? How many hours are they spending? How is this going to support you in your recovery? Or how is this going to detract from you in your recovery because it’s going to need to be part of their recovery plan? We can’t just address depression, anxiety and all these other modalities, and not take a look at the influence that social media is having for them today.

Now, the one area of the internet, that people will come into a treatment program for, and that we see at CBC is their gaming addiction. That gaming addiction is a process addiction that is significant and is as apt to destroy their life as a substance addiction can. Again, you take a particularly vulnerable young person, male or female, particularly vulnerable, emotionally vulnerable, and sometimes it’s on the internet, it’s in their gaming prowess that they find their sense of identity.

It may be the only place they feel that there’s any social acceptance for them, and by the time they come into treatment, we often have somebody who has an eating disorder. Their self-care is extremely poor in terms of a lack of cleanliness, their hygiene is really poor. You see them not working. You often see them in the basement of their parents’ home, with parents very angry and feeling very helpless at this point. Unfortunately, for most of those parents, they’ve also been extremely enabling of this process. When somebody comes in for gaming, by the way, they don’t typically come in for gaming, they come in for depression. Then their parents will say, “Well, they do spend a lot of time on their computer.”

David: They don’t view that as the problem?

Claudia: No. They feel that’s the only place in which they have some worth, but it’s very similar to a drug addict.

David: Yes, all those things you are listing off is- [crosstalk]

Claudia: Yes, all very similar to a drug addict.

David: -not taking care of yourself. Not being able to work, have relationships.

Claudia: Not growing up, being responsible.

David: Yes, probably similar symptoms.

Claudia: Yes. When it comes to the internet, social media devices, any way in which we can access the internet, that we take a look at it, and how does it support you in your recovery? How does it take away from the potential of your recovery and/or is it an active addiction? If it is, we want to look at that as a primary issue.

David: I’m curious, this raises the question, because you have this perspective over all these years of working with young adults, is fundamentally what they’re dealing with different now than it was like in the 1980s or is it just these little bits on top that are different? How would you describe it?

Claudia: Overall, I don’t think is fundamentally different. We all want to be loved. These kids, they want to know they’re loved, and somehow, for the majority of them, as I said, the self-loathing, the sense of worthlessness, their inability to experience their own sense of value, that hasn’t changed over the decades at all. Now, the ways in which they can act out, most of that hasn’t changed with the exception of technology and devices. Alcohol and drugs has been one of the best ways for them to ever act out. Sex has been one of the best ways for them to ever act out.

I do want to say something about this age group, they’ve grown up in an age of danger and a lack of safety really, ever since 9/11. That’s nearly our 20-year olds today.

David: Yes, it’s just our view of how safe the world is.

Claudia: Yes, you need to think about school shootings, and the preparation that takes place every day in our schools now, so kids are prepared that, “At any point, if there’s a shooting, this is how we’re going to protect ourselves.” That I do think is very different, that in so many ways, the world is not as safe.

David: Just having that outlook?

Claudia: Yes, and for the parents to have that outlook, for myself, and It may have been true for you, I don’t know, but as a kid, we could go out and play for three, four hours, the parents basically had a sense of where we were, but now, parents want to know where the kids are at all the time. We have what are called helicopter parents, hovering parents, and kids don’t have that chance to just spontaneously play.

The skills that come with that, kids learn how to negotiate, they learn how to problem-solve, they learn how to be with peers on an equal basis, they learn how to be caring towards others. They learn how to be helpful towards others. Now we just structure all of their time in a way that they miss out on some essential developmental task. Part of that has to do with the fear of parents, which then gets translated over to a very anxious, young person.

David: Yes, and that can create new trauma.

Claudia: Yes, it absolutely does create new trauma. I think there’s been a couple of surprises for me in working with young adults. I was shocked at the amount of social anxiety that these young adults have, extremely pervasive, almost given. Everyone that comes in, irrespective of their diagnosis. I was also surprised, maybe I shouldn’t have, but I was also surprised that, because I was working with 18, 19, 20-year olds, today we recognize that when an addict comes into a treatment program, they often have more than one addiction.

I didn’t expect to see that in the young ones. I didn’t expect to see that in the 20-year old, I guess we had to have more time.

David: Yes, you thought it was too early in their life?

Claudia: Yes, and it’s not true, I see it in the young ones.

David: You mentioned the family earlier, and that it seems like especially for somebody who’s 20 years old, that would play a big part. For these families, they’re seeing this and how you were just describing, they maybe thought is too early in life to have these multiple serious issues going on, so what do you say to these families? How do you help them understand, how to recognize this, what’s going on, how to take productive steps that are actually going to help their children?

Claudia: First of all, one of the things that I want to say to family members, at the point you even suspect your kid is experiencing difficulty, and you may not know why, you can see the behavior, but you don’t know what’s necessarily causing it. It is probably far more severe than you’re even able to see. I cannot tell you the number of secrets our young adults have from their parents. They are so afraid and so ashamed. One, if you’re out there in that community, and you’re really starting to suspect, “This is more serious than what I think it is,” trust that it is even that much more serious than you think it is.

David: Just trust that instinct?

Claudia: Yes, and you do not need to know why, all you need to do is see the behavior to say, “I need some help from somebody to help me take a look at this. What could this be about? Is this a depression or is this just a bad mood this week? Is this kind of anxiety normal for a 15-year old, normal for a 22-year old? I do think one of the differences today in our culture for young adults is, economically, it’s much harder to be independent than historically it has been, and I think that is a significant difference. We have a lot more kids living at home, and I think that confuses the expectation for kids.

David: Yes, so sometimes that’s not necessarily by choice. Those aren’t all created equal.

Claudia: Yes. We tend to want to give, maybe the kids the benefit of the doubt, because we realize that there are some challenges out there economically for them. At the same time, I just caution you about how long have you been giving them the benefit of the doubt? Enabling and enmeshment is very severe. It’s very chronic. It’s very pervasive in the families that we see. When I say enmeshment, these young people don’t have their own sense of autonomy.

I do want to say that most of the young adults that I see at CBC do not necessarily live at home, and yet they’re still emotionally as tied as if they do still live at home. They certainly are dependent upon their parents. They want to feel as if they belong to that family, and that they have worth in the context of that family. Family brings meaning for them, and that can sound like such an old-fashioned value, but it is just as true for these kids today.

David: Yes, I was going to say, that doesn’t sound like a new thing.

Claudia: No, it’s not new at all, it sounds very old fashioned. No matter how much they’re acting out, and no matter how much they’re pushing back at you, that’s what I see. What I always say is, what I see is, I see kids wanting to be loved, and I see parents just loving their kids, it’s just that they’re oftentimes taking care of them in unhealthy ways.

David: Yes. What’s the step you take with the parents to help them change? To help them understand that?

Claudia: We’re trying to help parents sometimes to look at what’s created that for them. What’s their fear of conflict about? That’s something that’s probably not just about their son. The parents need their own recovery often from their own traumatic issues. Sometimes they need their own recovery from their own depression. Sometimes they need their own recovery from their own addictive disorders. At CBC, we do webinars ahead of time, and then we have a family week. Part of what comes out of family week is the parents say, “This is what I need to address for myself, because if I don’t address this, I’m not going to hold my son accountable. I’m not going to support them in the ways in which they need to be supported.” For us, what I really say to parents is just reading about boundaries, I do some readings about the influences in your own life and be willing to participate very actively in any kind of outpatient psychotherapy process or inpatient therapy that your child may be a part of.

David: Now, looking into the future. What are some challenges that you see might be coming to the forefront, might be the next wave that you’ll be helping people deal with at the Claudia Black Center five years from now perhaps?

Claudia: I think that a part of the whole issue of screen devices is getting in the way of social relationships and intimacy. That is going to fuel, if not, more social apathy, more depression, more anxiety.

David: Social anxiety.

Claudia: Yes, and so I think that’s going to be escalating. We already see that.

David: Yes, and so a part of it is what you’re doing on the device and then, part of it is just having that device as such a big part of your life, like that takes the place of other relationships that you would have otherwise.

Claudia: The research is already showing us that it’s a direct proportion relationship to the amount of time you spend on screen devices as it is increasing substantially your spending significantly less time, what’s called real time, with people in terms of social play and social recreation. That is where you develop some very essential life skills. Now, I’m 30 years of age and I don’t know how to be in a relationship. I want to be in a relationship because I’m lonely but I don’t have the skills in which to be in a relationship.

David: All right, so for someone listening who is interested in diving even deeper into these topics that we’ve been discussing, what would be a book, a resource somewhere where you would point them where they could learn more about this?

Claudia: I would suggest a book called When the Servant Becomes The Master in terms of a better understanding addiction and process addictions by Jason Powers, is his name. The Servant is the Master. I would real iGen, that means iGeneration by Jean Twenge, T-W-E-N-G-E, to take a look at the impact of devices. I think that would be very helpful.

David: Looking at young adults.

Claudia: Looking at young adults very specifically.

David: Well, just to leave our listeners with one last thing, what’s a favorite piece of advice? Something that means a lot to you that you’d like to pass on?

Claudia: I don’t know if this is an advice but this has been a driving force for me and that is that nobody deserves to live with the fear of shame that so many of us live with and that we deserve to live with far greater choices in our lives versus a script. For me, I think that had a lot to do with my ever getting into the field because I was so riddled with everybody around me just operating from a place of fear and shame. Everybody has their worth and value and I hope that we find that for ourselves.

David: Dr. Claudia Black is the architect of the Claudia Black Center for Young Adults in Wickenburg, Arizona and like she said, in addition to building the program, you can often still find her there teach on the frontlines. To learn more about Claudia’s team at CBC, visit claudiablackcenter.com.

Beyond Theory is produced, written and edited by me, David Condos. You can discover more from this podcast including extended videos of each conversation at beyondtheorypodcast.com. Finally, thank you for listening. I hope you’ll join us again next time for another episode of Beyond Theory.