Burglary Can Leave Emotional Scars : Anger, Fear May Be More Damaging Than Material Loss

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Davis is free-lance writer who lives in Orange</i>

While Carol Willis enjoyed a vacation out of town at her parent’s house, burglars went through her Orange County apartment and took everything of value.

“When I discovered what happened, I was horrified,” said the marketing executive. “Before that, burglaries were just statistics I heard on TV. I never dreamed it could happen to me.”

Willis’ surprise at having her house broken into isn’t uncommon, said Lt. Ross Moen, commanding officer of the West Los Angeles detective division. Despite the fact that 186,000 burglaries occurred in Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties in 1992, according to the California Department of Justice, “people generally don’t think that their time has come,” Moen said. “Instead, they are usually very shocked that their safe haven has been invaded.”


When they hear the word “burglary,” many people think of monetary loss. The truth is, those who have been burglarized find that the emotional damage can be much more devastating than losing material possessions. After a burglary, it’s normal to experience a variety of emotions, including a feeling of being violated, helplessness, anger, sadness and fear. The key to healing after a break-in, experts say, is to let these emotions run their course.

Perhaps the hardest thing to deal with after a burglary is the realization that your private space has been invaded by a stranger, said psychologist Mory Framer, who is with Los Angeles-based Barrington Psychiatric Center, which has a division that treats individuals involved in traumas such as bank robberies and explosions.

“People who’ve been burglarized used to believe that their home was the last safe place, but that security has been breached and they feel violated,” Framer said.

Most burglary victims take this intrusion into their private world very personally. “For many people their home, which they see as an extension of themselves, has been penetrated and defiled, and that which was valuable, brutally taken,” said Dr. Louis West, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA.

This feeling of being violated is more common among women than men. “Some psychoanalytic studies show that many women identify their homes with their bodies,” West said. “They tend to decorate their homes in the same manner in which they dress. So, when their home is violated, they feel violated.”

Another common feeling that burglary causes is helplessness, Framer said. “If the police come and can’t find fingerprints and don’t seem to have many clues, you may think no one cares,” he said. “Even though logic tells you they deal with a lot of burglaries, emotionally you feel like yours is the special case.”


Accompanied by this feeling of helplessness is often a fantasy about seeking revenge on the person who stole from you, Framer said.

Anger is also common, said Amy Stark, a Santa Ana psychologist who specializes in child and family therapy. Her office was burglarized three times before they installed an alarm system.

“You are usually angry at a lot of people,” she said. “The jerk who stole from you, the police (where were they, anyway?), society (what’s wrong with everyone?) and yourself for not having safeguarded your property well enough.”

It is especially heart-breaking when you lose irreplaceable items during a burglary.

“Items such as artifacts, pictures and jewelry that were given to you by your parents or other significant people are links to your past, and it is very painful to lose them,” said Framer, who had a rare and valuable watch given to him by his father stolen from his home.

“Personal, nostalgic items, whether they are valuable or not, are irreplaceable,” Stark said. “Their sentimental value is immeasurable, and you will probably always be sad about losing them.”

After that first burglary, Willis’ home was broke into three more times. “The first time, I was younger and hadn’t accumulated much,” she says. “They stole my television and stereo, but insurance replaced them. What was really upsetting was the third and fourth burglaries when they stole irreplaceable jewelry that had been given to me over the years.”


Now Willis keeps all of her good jewelry in a safe deposit box.

Perhaps the most unsettling emotional reaction to being burglarized is fear. “Most of us think of our home as a safe castle, and it’s very frightening to have that last bastion of our security breached,” Framer said. “It’s not uncommon for burglary victims to feel unsafe and have trouble sleeping.”

For some people, sleeplessness can last a couple of weeks, while others will remain extremely vigilant and easily startled out of slumber for many months afterward. “There’s no definite timetable (for recovery), Framer said.

Whatever you do after a burglary, never minimize your feelings. “People may say to you, ‘Thank goodness you weren’t home.’ Although it is fortunate you weren’t harmed, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t feel anything,” Framer said. “You’ve been intruded upon and it’s OK to feel badly.”

To make yourself feel better after a break-in, there are several things experts suggest doing and not doing.

“While your first instinct may be to move, don’t act on that initial reaction; wait and see if you still feel that way in a few weeks,” Framer said.

Instead of wringing your hands, the best approach is to take preventive action. “Be aware and informed and educate yourself because that is likely to give you some control and power back,” Framer said.


Contact your local police and have them come out and talk to your neighborhood about burglary prevention and what you can do to make your home more secure. Form a Neighborhood Watch, which will make you feel less alone and could very well prevent future burglaries.

“Every possible precaution you can take is positive because it gives you a feeling of empowerment,” Stark said, “Just don’t go overboard and barricade yourself in your home.”

No matter how much you do to protect yourself against burglary, it’s also important to realize that lightening does strike twice or even four times, as in Willis’ case.

“There is no absolute immunity from anything in this world,” Framer said. “You can take every possible precaution and still be vulnerable.”

Even though Willis took the police’s advice and did everything they suggested after her first burglary, she was burglarized again. At one point she even moved to a nicer neighborhood and thought she was finally safe, but she came home one day to an open door and a missing VCR.

“I remember thinking that I just couldn’t get away from it all,” she says. “I did everything you were supposed to do, but it happened over and over, and it was really hard to feel secure.”


Whether you’re burglarized once or four times, you’re not likely to ever forget it.

“It’s very scary to have a stranger in your home uninvited, and a part of you will always remember that it happened,” said Stark, who never leaves valuables in the office anymore. “Since it occurred once, you know that it could occur again and it makes it very hard to plan ahead--it’s like the threat of an earthquake.”

Since she married seven years ago, Willis hasn’t been burglarized. She is aware, however, that it could happen again at any time. “When I’m the last one to leave the house and I’m locking up, I think about it every single time.”

When to Seek Help

No one reaction to being burglarized is wrong, says Amy Stark, a Santa Ana psychologist. People do, however, have different levels of coping skills when it comes to trauma.

If your life is already chaotic or the burglars vandalized your home, you may be having a difficult time coping. It might be a good idea to consider getting professional help if you answer yes to two or more of the following question:

--Do you have chronic insomnia since the incident?

--Have you lost your appetite, and do you find it difficult to eat?

--Is it getting harder to perform daily functions?

--Are you often agitated or anxious?

--Do you have recurring nightmares?

--Have you turned to alcohol or drugs for comfort?

--Are you too frightened to leave the house?

When Your Neighbors Are Burglarized

If your neighbor’s home is burglarized, don’t be surprised if you’re happy it was him and not you, said Mory Framer, a psychologist with Barrington Psychiatric Center in Los Angeles.

Another common reaction to a neighbor’s loss is becoming nervous and worrying that you’ll be next. Help yourself and your neighbors at this time of crisis by considering the following tips:


--Don’t withdraw from your neighbors. Avoid acting as if having anything to do with your neighbors will contaminate you, says Dr. Louis West, professor of psychiatry at UCLA. Also don’t blame them for what happened; it could have been you.

--Offer a helping hand. If there was damage, help clean up. You can also bring food. Your neighbor will probably be too distraught to think about eating.

--Never minimize. “While it’s true that it is fortunate your neighbors weren’t hurt in the burglary, don’t insist they feel lucky about being unharmed,” Framer said. “The fact is they were emotionally damaged and you probably have no idea how they feel, so be supportive of their sense of loss.”

--Take action. Do what you can to safeguard against this happening to another member of the neighborhood. Have the police come out and explain how you can burglar-proof your homes and take their advice.

Explaining a Break-In to Your Children

If you have children, a burglary can be doubly stressful as you try to calm them and explain what happened.

Be very sensitive to your children’s reaction to the burglary, said Santa Ana child psychologist Amy Stark. “It’s best to let them ask you questions about what happened. Even if they ask the same question over and over, let them talk about what happened as much as possible,” she says. “This is their way of coming to terms with what happened.”


To make your kids feel safe again, demonstrate how you’ve safeguarded the home by showing them new security devices such as deadbolts and/or an alarm and explain how they work.

Many kids will have difficulty sleeping after a burglary. “This is perfectly normal and will pass,” Stark said. “They may need to sleep with you for a few nights until they feel comfortable again, and that’s OK.”

Although you don’t want to hide the fact from your children that you are upset, don’t appear to be too distraught.

“Kids get their cues from you. When they see you go into recovery, they will too,” she says. “If you need to talk to someone about how upset you are over the burglary, talk to another adult, not your children.”