Trauma in Childhood: What You Need to Know
How trauma in our childhood affects adult life, and how to heal.
Posted Jan 26, 2020
Joel is 24 and can't finish college; he often prefers smoking weed to writing papers.
- But Joel's laziness is a learned behavior. Joel grew up with his grandparents, with a narcissistic grandfather who constantly told him that he won't amount to anything. Now as a young adult, Joel has internalized this sentiment. Why try when you are destined to fail?
- Now Jessica goes through life like a gazelle, trusting no one, perpetually ready to bolt at the slightest provocation.
Both Joel and Jessica suffer from a version of Childhood Trauma. Let's explore what happens to young people, and what can be done.
Types of Trauma
Acute trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are well known to the public, from television and movies as well as direct experience. A soldier who sees his friend die before his eyes experiences trauma; when the same memories come back months later to haunt him through nightmares and flashbacks, they transform into PTSD.
Complex trauma is different.
It is the result of consistent, inescapable, sometime subtle aggression. It’s the trauma of youth.
This is what a young child experiences when they are attacked, whether verbally, physically or psychologically by care-givers. Ridicule instead of adoration, violence instead of love, rejection instead of embrace. It's a form of trauma, and unlike adults, a child cannot escape.
Years later, childhood trauma usually reappears with unfortunate consequences.
- Joel might do better at school, but his grandfather's narcissistic contempt still holds him spellbound, unable to realize his full intellectual potential. (The weed he uses to dampen self-loathing also doesn't help.) Though the man himself has long passed away, his unkind words still traumatize.
- Meanwhile, Jessica is hyper-attuned to other people's disappointment. At the first hint of displeasure from her boss, her colleague, or her date, she flees. Her jobs, however promising, never turn into careers; her colleagues, however friendly, never become actual friends; her dates, however pleasant, never become long-term boyfriends. She is simply too afraid of falling short of their expectations. This is the legacy of her mother's instability.
Death does not erase a person's influence over others; if anything, it solidifies their legacy. Once a person is gone, you can no longer respond to them. And so even dead, Joel's grandfather still controls his life, and Jessica's mother holds her back from becoming a self-sufficient and fulfilled adult. The abusive adult may be no more, but their hurt continues.
The American playwright Eugene O’Neill once wrote:
"There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now."
You might recognize yourself in Joel or Jessica.
Perhaps you had an alcoholic parent or went through a nasty divorce. You might have even suffered physical abuse at the hands of a loved one. Any of this can lead to complex trauma. A sufferer can become aggressive - or be so averse to confrontation that they cut off budding relationships at the first hint of disharmony. They can become incapable of tackling complex tasks, paralyzed by self-doubt - or they can turn them into an asocial workaholic, subconsciously determined to succeed even at the cost of their happiness and family life.
Childhood Abuse - 10 Ways to Heal:
- Acknowledge What Happened: This is a parent or a loved adult that we are talking about. Even if you loved him or her, and were loved in return, that adult still hurt you deeply.
- Psychotherapy: Talking it out might help Joel put his grandfather's unkind words to rest and allow Jessica to set aside her fear of rejection and let other people into her life. Therapy helps you to objectify your experience, so you have a better chance of grasping it; and overcoming.
- Grief: The death of a parent or care-giver is always traumatic, even if they had been unkind. Acknowledging both the good and the bad about a deceased parent can allow you to finally let go of them. You may even be able to forgive.
- Identify your Triggers: Joel receives a difficult assignment and feels like a little kid staring helplessly at an arithmetic worksheet. Jessica hears a raised voice and runs away from it, feeling small and helpless. What sets off your trauma-induced behavior?
- Break the Cycle: Every time you respond to your trigger, you re-enforce the reaction. When Joel fails a test, he re-enforces both his inability to concentrate and his feelings of worthlessness. When Jessica ends yet another relationship after the first argument, she re-enforces her own fearfulness.
- Alternative Treatments: In addition to psychotherapy, EMDR, Somatic Experiencing or DBT can help. These treatments work to mute the triggers that are neurologically embedded in your brain. Remember, the fight/flight/freeze response evolved to protect the organism from dangerous situations. Overcoming this biological programming might require expert help.
- Depression and Anxiety: Trauma often manifests with other psychiatric disorders. In some cases, medication might be in order to mute trigger responses effectively.
- Spirituality: Expressions of faith can, for some people, prove invaluable both in affirming their own self-worth and in letting go of past grievances. Many faiths offer insights into renewal and rebirth that can be useful in working to shed the old skin binding one's psyche.
- Helping the Next Generation: One day, it could be raising your own children, with a commitment never to hurt them like you had been hurt. Or, you may want to volunteer and help less fortunate kids mature, perhaps in the role of pastor, therapist, teacher or coach. Mind you, there is risk involved. You can be triggered to repeat the mistakes of the past; do it wrong and you continue the trauma to the next generation. Yet, with help and determination, you can do it right. Help raise a healthy child; its a healing for you and the world.
Let Go If You Can:
Above all, allow yourself to let go. And, if you can't let it go, try to accept. There is so much that is unfair and wrong in this life. But, holding onto hurt perpetuates the injury. Accept and release, if you can.
"Rest in peace," we say of our dead relatives. But, with trauma an abusive parent or guardian somehow lives on. It’s not right.
Work the program; one of the above methods may bring you to the other side. And, let go of the person who hurt you. They may be alive or dead, but their criticism or slander remains.
Let it go. And let them rest in peace.
After all, it's your life.
Edited by Gabriel Banschick
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