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Isolation: A Common Result of Surviving Family Trauma

Increasing understanding of a form of trauma that leaves many misunderstood.

Key points

  • Family trauma often leaves survivors having to learn healthy behavior patterns with few or no role models.
  • Children from dysfunctional families often grow up without key tools for healthy emotional development.
  • Others may struggle to comprehend the nuances of their experience, leading to misguided attempts at support.
Image by Jakub Kopczyński from Pixabay
Source: Image by Jakub Kopczyński from Pixabay

"Ugh, I just wish I came from a normal family with normal problems!" Janelle lamented, her voice strained with emotion. Despite years of dedicated therapy, she still found herself reverting to the frightened child she once was, isolated and vulnerable in the face of domestic turmoil. Now in her mid-40s, Janelle had spent over a decade grappling with the aftermath of growing up in an abusive and tumultuous household. Yet, the recent news of her mother's relapse brought forth a wave of panic and dread, triggering a familiar cycle of retraumatization. This caused a rift between her and her wife, who struggled to understand.

"I just don't see why it upsets her so much," her wife said from the other side of the couch, "It's nothing new, but it just completely takes her over for days and she can't move past it. It is really impacting our relationship."

Unlike her partner, who had been raised in a more stable environment, Janelle's extreme reactions stemmed from years of shouldering the role of caregiver within her family dynamic. From shielding her siblings from her mother's intoxicated outbursts to serving as her mother's emotional anchor during brief periods of sobriety, Janelle had become conditioned to bear the weight of responsibility while feeling utterly alone. Her upbringing had stripped away her ability to respond to stress in a healthy manner, leaving her grappling with emotions that others might easily dismiss.

Children from dysfunctional families often grow up without the fundamental tools for healthy emotional development. Instead of feeling nurtured and cherished, they may experience neglect, abuse, or inconsistent care. The absence of positive role models can leave them adrift, lacking the essential skills to form healthy relationships or cope with life's challenges.

Like those born into poverty, war, and other stressful and traumatic environments, they face mental health barriers due to their trauma that often hinder their ability to thrive (Maté, 2022).

A privilege

When working with clients, I often make the comparison that coming from a healthy family is a privilege that many take for granted.

Just as financial privilege affords opportunities and stability, being raised in a mentally healthy family provides a foundation of emotional support, security, and guidance. In contrast, navigating the complexities of a dysfunctional family can feel like traversing a minefield, where every step carries the risk of emotional harm.

In a mentally healthy family, communication is open, boundaries are respected, and conflicts are resolved constructively. Parents provide a stable environment that fosters healthy development of self-esteem, resilience, and a sense of belonging for young developing children. Unfortunately, for those raised in extremely dysfunctional households, such as with caregivers who are mentally ill, abusive, or have untreated substance use or other traumas, this experience is often foreign. In these environments, where abuse, neglect, and chaos reign, children are often deprived of the nurturing relationships and stable environments essential for healthy development.

Lasting effects

Without the guidance and protection of emotionally stable caregivers, children are left vulnerable to the lasting effects of trauma, including heightened stress responses, emotional dysregulation, and difficulty forming secure attachments.

This profound lack of support not only increases the risk of mental health issues but also leaves survivors grappling with a myriad of physical health consequences, perpetuating a cycle of adversity that can persist across generations (Maté, 2022; Wolynn, 2017).

Acknowledging the parallels between growing up in a dysfunctional family and growing up in extremely traumatic environments such as war and violence is essential for healing and validation. Research on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) explores the devastating repercussions of traumatic family environments on survivors who lack the basic safety net of healthy adults that many take for granted. "Without adequate protective factors, children’s early experiences with adversity and toxic stress have implications for their physiological, psychological, and social health," (Claypool & Moore de Peralta 2021).

Research on teenagers exposed to high levels of family trauma shows that they experience higher levels of mental illness and impulsivity, as well as increased levels of maladaptive or dangerous behaviors such as impulsivity, substance use, and risky sexual behaviors (Espeleta et al., 2018). But the impact of family dysfunction extends far beyond childhood, shaping one's beliefs, behaviors, and relationships well into adulthood. It affects survivors' very ability to relate to others around them.

The experience of family trauma often leaves survivors grappling with a profound sense of isolation and a lack of understanding from others for their experiences. A common example of this I often see in my practice is the experience of loss. When someone loses a family member due to death, for example, there's a shared understanding of grief and mourning that come from outsiders. Even if many struggle with knowing the right thing to say, there is the basic script of offering condolences and extending gestures of support, however small. But for those whose family trauma stems from abandonment, abuse, or dysfunction, the response from others may be markedly different. Friends and acquaintances may struggle to comprehend the nuances of their experience, leading to well-intentioned but misguided attempts at comfort or, worse, silence. Just like the couple in the above case vignette, when someone fails to grasp the profound complexity of the experiences of growing up in an unsafe family, they may easily dismiss it as not being worthy of much attention. Had Janelle been struggling with grief from losing her mom, rather than the retraumatization of her mom's relapse, perhaps her wife may have had more understanding of the situation.

Lack of validation

Unlike the loss of a loved one, when societal norms dictate a script of condolences and support, the complexities of family dysfunction can be met with confusion, discomfort, or even dismissal from those who simply do not have a frame of reference for this experience.

Unlike the death of a family member, an experience that is almost universally understood and acknowledged, survivors of family trauma may feel invisible, their suffering unseen and unacknowledged by others, and their feelings unrecognized or invalidated by those who fail to grasp the depth of their pain.

This lack of validation can exacerbate the already profound sense of loneliness that often accompanies family trauma. Without the support and empathy of others, survivors may internalize feelings of worthlessness or believe that their experiences are somehow unworthy of attention. The absence of a clear societal script for navigating family trauma further compounds these feelings, leaving survivors adrift in a sea of unspoken, and often unacknowledged, pain.

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Maté, G. (2022). The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture. Penguin Books

Claypool, N., & Moore de Peralta, A. (2021). The Influence of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), Including the COVID-19 Pandemic, and Toxic Stress on Development and Health Outcomes of Latinx Children in the USA: a Review of the Literature. International journal on child maltreatment : research, policy and practice, 4(3), 257–278.

Espeleta, H. C., Brett, E. I., Ridings, L. E., Leavens, E. L. S., & Mullins, L. L. (2018). Childhood adversity and adult health-risk behaviors: Examining the roles of emotion dysregulation and urgency. Child Abuse & Neglect, 82, 92–101.

Wolynn, M. (2017). It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

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