Viewers held their collective breaths over Memorial Day weekend, 2016, when a three-year-old boy slipped away from his mother and fell into the gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnatti zoo. The female gorillas left the exhibit when called away by their keeper, but a 450-pound male grabbed the child and intermittently dragged him around the moat and enclosure for several minutes until shot dead by a zoo staff member. The endless loop of this event shown repeatedly on TV news is almost unwatchable for me—so what may this experience have done to the child and the family?
The little boy’s physical injuries were minor and the family has stated that they just want to be quiet and will not sue the zoo. But discussion of criminal and dependency investigations is underway, and the experience is not over in that sense. In the psychological sense, too, it is likely to go on. For the child and the observers, the experience was one of trauma in the fullest sense: there was danger of death or serious injury, and there was extreme fear and a sense of helplessness. Such experiences are well known to have lasting effects in the form of post-traumatic stress symptoms and disorders. Two important points here: first, that the child is bound to have been affected—the old idea that he was “too young to understand” (and therefore was not harmed) is simply not true. Second, all members of the family, but especially the mother who stood helplessly with her other children while this happened, have also been traumatized.
What can we expect for people who have been through such an ordeal? For all of them: broken sleep, disturbing dreams, and daytime flashbacks in which they “relive” the dreadful experience and are distracted from driving, cooking, or whatever they are actually doing. For the child, there may also be outbursts of irritability, relationship problems (after all, his mother “failed” him), and trouble following rules. As the parents themselves are trying to handle their own anxiety, they may find it difficult or impossible to respond supportively to a child who has suddenly become so difficult to deal with. Similarly, they may find it very hard to be understanding or supportive to each other; a possible scenario is that father blames mother for letting this happen, while she in her turn blames him for not having been there to help. It’s quite possible that an escalating series of problems will feed off each other – just as may happen in other families with less newsworthy traumas like a car crash or the birth of a severely handicapped child.
Can anything be done to help this family if the problems escalate and the post-traumatic symptoms become a longer-lasting and more problematic PTSD? Yes, there is an effective treatment, trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). The embedded video below is a good youtube discussion of what this involves, but I will just say briefly that it helps the child identify and talk about the emotions that were experienced, and teaches the parents to think differently about the situation and to be able to communicate calmly about the memories they all have. These changes in thinking about their feelings enable them to behave differently toward each other and to get back on track with their lives.
In the case of the Cincinnatti family, their troubles will also be complicated by authorities’ observations and investigations, and the threat (unlikely but inherent in the situation) that their children will be placed in foster care. None of this will make it easier for them to recover from their trauma. I hope that their health insurance or other sources will make it possible for them to receive the treatment they will probably need—and that other traumatized families will be aware that there is help available for them.
What is Trauma-Focused CBT for Children & Adolescents?
by Kati Lear & Sarah Steinmetz
Jean Mercer, Ph.D., is emerita professor of psychology at Stockton University, where she taught courses in child and infant development for 30 years. She is the author of a number of books on child development issues, including Attachment Therapy On Trial, a discussion of the death of a 10-year-old girl in an “alternative” treatment. Her Childmyths blog is at http://childmyths.blogspot.com. She has two grown-up sons and two grown-up stepsons, three grandsons, and now a long-awaited granddaughter.