Supporting Children Experiencing the Trauma of Parental Addiction and Alienation

Author Sara Church shares how mentors changed her life

From the outside looking in, my life seems great to others. I’ve got two college degrees and a lucrative position as an executive at a biotech company. I’m happily parenting a 2-year-old and my personal relationships are solid. In addition, I’ve authored two books, own a nice house and I’m in good health.

What others can’t see is that I’m a high school drop-out. I was a troubled child and have lived on my own since I was 15. And, because I experienced childhood abandonment, neglect and poverty, my brain and nervous system didn’t develop normally. As a result, I endured four years of treatment for complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD).

As a child, I was adversely impacted by parental incarceration and drug abuse, as well as witnessing a violent crime. My behaviors didn’t make sense to others but were quite normal given my background. I kept people at a distance and had angry outbursts and I was labeled a “bad kid” by teachers and school administrators. I was suspended from school multiple times, got caught shoplifting, and had difficulty regulating my emotions.

When my high school principal suspended me for the third time, he angrily said, “you are going to end up a waitress if you are lucky.” His words were the worst punishment I could have received because it solidified my belief that I was bad. I constantly asked myself, “how could I NOT be bad if neither of my parents took care of me.” I never intended to be a poorly behaved teenager, and was intensely frustrated because I desperately wanted to be good. I doubt my fed-up principal understood how trauma can alter a child’s brain and nervous system, making it difficult to self-regulate. And, it’s almost certain he lacked the resources to help me.

Helpful resources for children, or adult survivors of trauma, are therapists who specialize in trauma using proven treatment methods. This approach is different from what occurs in talk therapy. For me, it involved trauma processing using techniques such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and did not involve prescription medications. Therapists who don’t specialize in trauma might unintentionally cause more harm.

Additionally, books such as “The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog’’ by Bruce Perry, “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, and “Trauma-Proofing Your Kids” by Peter Levine and Maggie Kline are beneficial, as well as finding support groups or foundations like the CPTSD Foundation.

As helpful as these resources are, It’s my belief there is nothing more transformative than love and kindness to a suffering child. It may take thousands of tiny acts of love over time to see the results.

“Sara Church, please come to the office” blared from the classroom speaker. “What did I do wrong this time?” I wondered as I was ushered into the counselor’s office.

My counselor, Mrs. Brown, is one of the people who changed my future. That day, she smiled kindly at me while I nervously took a seat.

“Have you ever thought about college?,” she asked.

I gave her a bewildered look and stammered, “No.”

Her response was, “Well, you should. You are capable.”

I don’t remember much more of the conversation. What I remember is that she looked at me with kind eyes and believed in me. Her words planted a seed in me that would later grow. Telling children who are suffering from trauma that you believe in them is a priceless gift.

I lived on my own throughout high school and worked nights and weekends in the restaurant of a local Marriott resort. I busted my butt to earn more tips and secure additional shifts. I enjoyed the physical demands of my job because it helped release pent-up anxiety. My manager, Tom, took notice “I’ll make you a supervisor if you study hotel and restaurant management in college.”

His words gave me some sort of vision for the future which was all I needed to at least take steps toward something. Steps toward anything. My mindset and energy was zapped with getting by day-to-day, and I needed to look up and follow a star toward a brighter future. Later, Tom made me a shift supervisor while I was studying hotel and restaurant management.“

For parents, I hope you know that if you are struggling, exhausted or feeling helpless as you care for a struggling child, you are a hero and are likely helping much more than you realize. It just may take a long time for these seeds to sprout within a child. Each and every tiny act of love, patience or kindness has the power to heal and transform. Mrs. Brown and my former manager, Tom, have no idea how much they impacted my life. They helped me see a bigger picture for my life and to see myself as something other than a failure. It is the countless small acts of kindness and love in my life now which fuel me to keep aiming for a vision that is bigger than myself.


Sara Church is a biotech executive and an advocate for mental health. At age 40, upon discovering that she was suffering from Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) due to unresolved childhood trauma, Sara embarked on a quest to understand and overcome the condition holding her back in her personal relationships so she could live a more fulfilling life. Her upcoming book, Mending My Mind, began as a journal she kept during that process. Today she is engaged with the Complex PTSD Foundation, and continues to transform her own Complex PTSD into a force for love and strength. She is also the author of A Giraffe Named Monroe, a heart-warming adventure for children about kindness and adventure. Sara enjoys spending time with her family, hiking, reading, and traveling.