Recognizing childhood trauma

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Have you suffered a childhood trauma? Probably the majority of people if asked this question would answer ‘no.’ And yet many of them will be mistaken.

It may seem to you surprising how it is possible to be unaware of such a big thing as trauma – it is like overlooking an elephant in the room! Yet this is exactly what is happening. And the reason for that is that we simply don’t recognize an elephant for an elephant. Instead we see it as an integral part of the room’s interior.

When we hear the word ‘trauma’ we tend to think of a sudden shocking event with visibly manifest physical or/and emotional injuries. For example, surviving a car crash. Or being raped.

People who have lost one of their parents as children would sometimes say it was a trauma. Often, however, they would regard it just as a sad fact of life and won’t recognize that they have been traumatized by it.

Redefining trauma

We need to rethink then what we understand by trauma. I would say this: trauma is an event or a long-lasting situation that has a damaging impact on one’s emotional, psychological and physical wellbeing.

When trauma is not addressed promptly and thoroughly it usually has long-lasting effects, which may severely undermine one’s life. Unfortunately, traumas resulting from suffering a long-term emotional distress very often go unnoticed and untreated for years, until some major crisis hits and a person suddenly finds him/herself at the point of a breakdown. It is about this type of trauma suffered during childhood that I want to write in this blog.

Fundamental childhood needs

Contrary to what we are used to thinking, being a child is very challenging! Look what a huge difference there is between a new born baby and a two year old toddler, and between that toddler and a first grader. As adults we don’t normally experience comparable developmental leaps. We tend to live more or less in our comfort zone and won’t leave it by our own accord. Children, however, have no choice! They are hard pushed by the very nature of their growing and developing – physically, cognitively and psychologically. They have very little space to bask in the comfort zone. Mostly, it is an ongoing climb.

When you look at childhood like this you can begin to appreciate how much support children need in order to transition successfully through all the developmental stages. The fundamental basic needs include:

  • SAFETY (emotional and physical);
  • Unconditional affection and consistent engaged interest of their parents and caretakers;
  • The right to make mistakes;
  • The right to express their feelings and have them acknowledged;
  • Positive encouragement and validation.

Probably most of us didn’t have all these needs met equally well at all periods of our childhood. But some people, sadly, had to grow up with the exact reverse of these conditions. Read on to see if it might have been your case.

Traumatic conditions in childhood

Existential threat

If a child gets beaten up or witnesses physical violence between the parents or towards other siblings, the child will experience it as a threat to his/her survival. Similar fear is also being engendered in a child if she or he is being constantly shouted at or hears his/her parents shouting at each other.

The lack of healthy boundaries also makes children feel unsafe. Children need a holding structure, within which they can explore, experiment rebel and grow. Growing up in a chaotic household is like being on a boat without an anchor in the open sea. Growing up with overly rigid boundaries (which usually involves punishment for breaking them) is like living in a prison.

Psychological overload

Sometimes young children are made to carry a burden that is too big for their age. For example, in a family with several children and hard working parents the elder child (sometimes at quite a tender age) may become like a parent to her/his younger siblings. This person will skip the carefree stage of childhood and grow up feeling overburdened by the heavy sense of responsibility, finding it difficult to relax and just have fun.

It also happens that a child may become like a parent to their parents if one of the parents is seriously ill or depressed. The parent’s needs in such a situation become a priority and a child learns to suppress his/her own needs in order not to disturb or upset the parent. The message that the child ingests is that of his/her own unimportance. As adults these children often struggle to express themselves, to say ‘no’, to assert their rights and to appreciate themselves and their needs and desires.

Blame, guilt, shaming

Are you constantly feeling guilty about things? Do you believe it is your fault if something goes wrong at work or at home? If your mother misses a doctor’s appointment do you gnaw yourself for not having reminded her?

Persistent feelings of guilt are a symptom of a childhood trauma. They are the result of the culture of blaming and shaming, of being made responsible for your parents’ problems and unhappiness. If you were told by your mother that she has sacrificed her academic career for you, she was giving you a guilt trip. If you have been ridiculed for not knowing the name of some composer, you have been shamed for ‘ignorance.’ The shame about your mistakes transforms into pervasive shame about who you are. It is toxic and paralyzing.

Emotional neglect

In order to thrive children need to feel (not just know intellectually!) loved, welcomed and appreciated. They feel this if parents spend enough time with them, hold them, play with them, talk to them about things that matter to them and take interest in their activities. If parents are working long hours and are only at home to fix dinner and send the child to bed, the child will feel abandoned.

The lack of caring attention during childhood is like the lack of nutrients and vitamins. It stunts the person’s emotional/psychological growth and impairs the development of strong healthy self-esteem. Emotional neglect and abandonment have long-lasting effect and can seriously undermine one’s life and ability to be happy.

Emotionally unstable parents

Children of emotionally unstable and mentally ill parents are in the highest risk category. There is virtually no safe place for them. They suffer from neglect and abandonment because their parents are preoccupied with their own stuff. They have to tiptoe around their parents to prevent them from snapping and ‘flipping.’ They suppress their needs, while trying to guess their parents’ needs and desires and learn to please in order to get approval. They can’t express their own preference or feeling without having it invalidated by the parent who always ‘knows better.’ If they do get praised it is usually for doing something that reinforces the parent’s sense of self-value. Emotional connection is either non-existent or erratic. Or a child may be made a confidante of a parent and a recipient of their psychological unloading. These children have been heavily traumatized and need help.

Acknowledging versus blaming

As a rule, parents who have failed in their role of a parent have themselves suffered childhood trauma. They deserve empathy and compassion. But so do you! It is not about blaming it is about acknowledging the facts and helping what we can help. It is about breaking the chain of trauma transmitted through generations and healing your life and the lives of your children and grandchildren.

Please help me to help others

This blog article is the most general sketch on childhood trauma. To learn more please follow my Facebook page (Soultap Therapy) where I post links to other literature and resources.

Please share this article with your friends and people who may benefit from this information. And feel free to post comments or write to me if you have questions.

 

 

 

 

 

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