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Trauma

Was My Childhood Traumatic?

There's no single objective measure of traumatic experiences. You define it.

Key points

  • Trauma is subjective. What may feel and be traumatic to you may not be to another person and vice versa.
  • Trauma can be generated by a single event or through enduring adverse conditions over time.
  • The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study can be illuminating as a starting point for those ready to explore the question.

Have you ever wondered if your childhood was traumatic?

The answer to this question is never simple. It’s complex, and it bears answering in a thoughtful, deliberate way.

So I want to define trauma and discuss some necessary considerations for determining the impact of your childhood.

First, I want to acknowledge that if you’re even asking this question, there’s some small part of you that already has the answers you may need. In my experience, people who don’t come from abusive, dysfunctional, or traumatic childhoods don’t even entertain the question; they see the question on the screen or hear it spoken out loud, and they move on.

But for those of us who do come from dysfunctional, abusive, or chaotic backgrounds, even if we gloss over the question initially, it boomerangs. It comes back. And to answer it, we first need to define trauma. In my decade of clinical work, the best definition I’ve found is this:

"Trauma is the unique individual experience of an event or enduring conditions in which the individual’s ability to integrate his/her emotional experience is overwhelmed and the individual experiences (either objectively or subjectively) a threat to his/her life, bodily integrity, or that of a caregiver or family." (Saakvitne, K. et al, 2000).

By this definition, we see that psychological trauma is subjective and relative: What makes something traumatic for one person may not be traumatic for another, depending on our ability to deal with it.

But there’s another part of this definition I want to draw attention to: enduring conditions.

Typically and historically, trauma has been thought of as an isolated and discrete event: a car crash, a bombing, a rape, military service. But trauma therapist and author Karen Saakvitne also nuances that trauma can be a set of enduring conditions. Such conditions are complex and protracted, meaning they take place repeatedly over time and include more than one event. Examples could include abandonment or threat of abandonment; outright verbal, emotional, or physical abuse; witnessing domestic violence, etc.

The second consideration we must evaluate is the study of adverse childhood experiences—specifically, the CDC/Kaiser Permanente ACE Study conducted from 1995-1997. It was and remains one of the largest and richest data sets exploring correlations between challenging early childhood events and later health outcomes for individuals.

The study may be old, but it’s fascinating and has informed trauma-informed care for many mental health and medical health professionals since. One reason I believe the ACE study is worth considering in the context of this post is that it asks a series of questions that have been validated and affirmed. (You're also welcome to take the ACE quiz and see what your personal results are.)

The last consideration is your subjective reality. Earlier, I shared a definition of trauma that included the phrase: “Trauma is the unique individual experience of an event or enduring conditions.”

The unique individual experience piece of this definition is critical to consider, because what may feel and be traumatic to you may not be to another person, and vice versa. Your subjective experience – your unique individual reality – is part of what determines whether something felt traumatic or not.

For instance, you may have been raised by a father diagnosed with Anti-Social Personality Disorder and one of your siblings disagrees that your childhood was traumatic, but to you it was. You may feel confused and doubt yourself and your experience: “If my brother didn’t think it was traumatic, was it really?” The answer is: If it felt traumatic to you, it was. That was your subjective experience even if someone else disagrees with you.

There is no objective opinion of what makes something traumatic or not. It’s up to you to define.

As we close, I want to state two things:

1. If you Googled this phrase, Was my childhood traumatic?, and landed on this post, trust that some part of you already knows the answer.

2. Please know that this question is important to ask and to truly sit with, even if it feels uncomfortable.

As you wrestle with the question, please remember that you always have the option to reach out to a professional therapist for support.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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