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Adverse Childhood Experiences

From Childhood Pain to Empowerment

Understanding the effects of childhood trauma on adult functioning.

Katrina Wright/Unsplash
Source: Katrina Wright/Unsplash

As an adult, we’re often taught to look back on our childhood with reverence and happy thoughts, with a smile and warm, fuzzy moments that take us back to happier and carefree times. Childhood is coined as the time where we learn who we are, and where secure attachments should be formed with caregivers. It’s a time where we explore our potential and where we are encouraged to love ourselves as part of being shaped into healthy and functional future adults.

However, for some, this is not always the case. Some may struggle making the connection that their unhappiness today often originates from traumatic experiences in the past. As adults, we often go through the motions with work, school, family and other obligations and may not even realize that something is missing from our lives. Emotions and pain can get pushed to the side or denied as non-existing. It is hard to identify when there is a void in our lives if we were not shown or allowed to recognize what we’re feeling in childhood, and how those experiences can affect our future adult self.

Trauma’s Effects on Self

Acceptance, nurturing and unconditional love are essential for fostering a child’s sense of self. When children are taught that their worth is based on conditions or achievements, it can affect how they view themselves and their trust in others. Childhood negligence, abuse, or maltreatment chips away at their self-worth, creating feelings of shame and guilt that are carried with them into adulthood. Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse in childhood conditions distrust in others and mistrust in themselves where childhood pain and misbeliefs are repeated in toxic adult relationships.

Many times adults will continue pushing away emotions that trigger vulnerability or uncomfortable feelings by burying themselves in work or other obligations. If children weren’t allowed an opinion or vulnerable emotions in childhood, they may grow up disconnected from their feelings or express them negatively or in inappropriate ways. Some may not recognize that their outward behavior patterns are shaped and reinforced based on early life conditioning. Inconsistent, punitive, or negligent parenting in childhood are often the foundation for unhealthy relationships and avoidant attachment styles in adulthood which can reinforce a cycle of trauma.

Signs that childhood trauma is affecting you in adulthood:

  • Avoidance of intimacy or vulnerable emotions
  • Feeling empty or that something is missing from your life
  • Pushing away healthy or intimate relationships
  • Attraction to toxic relationships
  • Burying oneself in work or other obligations
  • Dissociation
  • Limited healthy coping strategies
  • Feeling stuck in anger or depression
  • Addictive or self-sabotaging behavior patterns
  • Chronic illnesses or auto-immune disturbances

Pain Into Empowerment

Facing and accepting traumatic experiences from earlier life is a process that is often painful and requires time and an emotional and mental investment. It is also an empowering journey that promises healing to those who choose to engage in it. Some adults may recognize that their emotional or intellectual development stalled as a result of abuse suffered in childhood and may choose to target these areas in their healing. Some may target maladaptive behavior patterns or toxic relationship dynamics in their healing journey. Still others may experience diagnoses such as PTSD or cPTSD as part of their healing and will need to further process those feelings and gain skills in managing both short-term and long-term effects.

When beginning or moving through your personal healing journey, there are several things to consider and recognize:

Allow yourself to grieve. Allowing yourself to grieve a childhood you never had, or the pain from early life trauma is a process. Many adult survivors of childhood maltreatment or abuse carry the burden as somehow being their fault. Allow yourself to grieve and to release the pain. It is not your fault what you experienced or survived in childhood. More often than not, children raised in traumatic or abusive environments are conditioned to mask vulnerable emotions such as anger or fearfulness that can leave them ill-prepared to deal with stressors or problems in their adult life. Grieving is a process and commonly includes five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Allowing yourself space to move through each stage on your own timeline can help foster healing.

Distance yourself from toxic people and situations. The old adage that you can’t heal in the same environment that made you sick rings true here. Consider writing a list of everyone in your life and seeing where they fall on a spectrum in being a positive role model or a not-so-good one. If they’re supportive, authentic, honest, loving, and trustworthy, positively challenge you, and are unconditional in their acceptance of you, then they are likely good candidates in keeping in your life. If, however they are emotionally negligent or unavailable to your needs or if they have a list of toxic traits such as poor impulse control, selfishness, bad judgement or a lack of empathy for you or others, you may want to distance yourself from them.

Safety and security. One thing that many adult survivors of early life trauma often lack in their lives is a sense of safety and security. If basic safety needs were not met or met inconsistently in childhood, there can be a sense of urgency or anxiety with controlling things or with everything being in order, to feel safe. Moving around often or living in unsafe conditions as a child can spark feeling threatened or unsafe in adulthood. Similarly, being unable to rely on caregivers for safety and security in childhood can spark an adulthood of anxiety or a lack of security or trust in relationships. Recognizing if safety needs are lacking is a necessary step in helping create a sense of safety and security in your adult life. Deciding where, how and with whom you feel safe are also important in helping navigate through healing.

Calming strategies are your best friend. Throughout healing you may be more sensitive to noise, to high-energy people, or to boisterous or loud environments. You may choose to limit your time or energy around people or places that emotionally drain you or cause you anxiety. This is nothing to be ashamed of and are actually normal experiences for many as they navigate through healing. Some enjoy meditation, journaling, hot baths, and quite activities such as hiking, swimming, or yoga. Pushing yourself to re-engage in a loud or high-energy environment too soon can be re-traumatizing, go gentle on yourself and your healing.