Howard Stern, Childhood Trauma, and Its Lasting Effects

What childhood trauma does to children and their future adult mind and body.

Posted Jun 09, 2019

With the awakening in society of the importance of mental health, combined with advances in neuroscience and psychiatry, much needed attention to trauma and childhood trauma is slowly forming.

In a recent interview with Anderson Cooper and in his latest book, Howard Stern discussed childhood adversity and trauma. The two men also discussed their exposure to their parents’ stress and how their reactions as children formed their adult behavior. 

As a trauma psychiatrist, I am glad that men with such celebrity are willing to talk about their experiences, because it can help raise public awareness and reduce stigma.

Childhood, learning about the world, and the self

A child's brain is a sponge for learning about how the world works, and who they are. An evolutionary advantage for us humans is the ability to trust the older and learn from them about the world. That leads to cumulative knowledge, and protecting us against adversity, about which only the experienced know. The child absorbs the patterns of perceiving the world, relating to others, and to the self. But when the initial environment is unusually tough and unfriendly, a person’s perception of the world may form around violence, fear, lack of safety, and sadness. Brains of adults who experienced childhood adversity or poverty are more prone to detecting danger, at the cost of ignoring the positive or neutral experiences. Some of those who experience childhood adversity have to mature faster and become caretakers or emotional support for siblings or parents at an age when they themselves need to be taken care of, and may end up carrying those patterns of relating to others throughout their adult life. The child may also perceive himself as unworthy of love, guilty, or bad: If they do this to me, there must be something wrong with me; I deserve it. In summary, the little world we experience as a child forms the way we perceive the real world, its people, and the person we are. This will then form the way the world reacts to us based on our actions.

What is childhood trauma?

Childhood trauma is more common than one would think: Up to two-thirds of children experience at least one traumatic event. These include serious medical illness of injury, firsthand experience of violence or sexual abuse or witnessing it, neglect, bullying, and the newest addition to the list—mass shootings. Unfortunately when it comes to domestic violence and sexual abuse, it is often chronic repetitive exposure, which can be detrimental to a child’s mental and physical health and behavior. Ongoing civil wars and refugee crises also expose millions of children to extremely high levels of trauma, which is often ignored.

How do children react to trauma?

To understand the child’s reaction to trauma, one has to keep in mind their developmental level of emotional and cognitive maturity. Most of the time, confusion is a reaction: The child does not know what is happening, and why it is happening. I hear frequently from adult patients that when they were molested by a relative as a five-year-old, they did not know what was happening, and why a supposedly trusting caregiver was doing it to them. Fear and terror, coupled with a sense of lack of control, are often part of this confusion. There is also guilt, as the child may believe they did something wrong to deserve the abuse; often the perpetrating adults claim they did do something wrong to deserve the abuse. Sadly, when it comes to sexual abuse, sometimes when parents are told about it, they choose to deny or ignore the incident. This makes feelings of guilt and helplessness worse. When the trauma is happening to parents (e.g. frequent battering of mother by an alcoholic father), children are stuck between two people they are supposed to love. They may be angry with their father for violence, or their mother for not being able to protect herself, and them. They may try to rise to protect mom from their father or from her sadness. They may feel guilty for not being able to save her, or have to raise their siblings when parents fail to do so. They learn the world is a brutal and unsafe place, where one is abused and one must be violent.

Adulthood scars of childhood trauma

There is a growing body of research suggesting longstanding impact of childhood trauma. Such childhood experiences can not only form the way the person perceives and reacts to the world, but there are also lifelong academic, occupational, mental, and physical health consequences. These children may have lower intellectual and school performance, higher rates of anxiety, depression, and substance use, and a variety of physical health problems including autoimmune disease.

Adults who endured childhood trauma have a higher chance of developing post-traumatic stress disorder when exposed to new trauma, and show higher rates of anxiety, depression, substance use, and suicide. Physical health consequences of childhood trauma in adults include but are not limited to obesity, chronic fatigue, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disease, metabolic syndrome, and pain.

Not all who are exposed to childhood adversity are permanently scarred, and a frontline in research of childhood adversity is predictors of risk and resilience. For instance, there are genetic variations which may make the person more or less vulnerable to impact of trauma. I often see those who were lucky enough to transform their trauma to a meaningful cause, and with the help of a good mentor, therapist, grandparent, or positive experiences, rise and develop more strength. This, however, does not mean that those who sustain long-term impacts were weaker or tried less. There are a multitude of genetic, neurobiological, family, support, socioeconomic, and environmental factors besides the severity and chronicity of the trauma, that can lead to breaking of the strongest of people when exposed to trauma.

What can be done?

We can do a lot. Reducing poverty, educating and providing less privileged parents with support needed for raising their children, and removing the source of trauma or removing the child from traumatic experiences, along with therapy and, when necessary medications, can do a lot. Fortunately recent advances in neuroscience, psychology, and psychiatry have provided us with strong tools to prevent the negative impact on the child, and reduce a lot of the negative impact in adults. 


This piece was originally published on The Conversation: