Childhood trauma is an event, situation, or environment you experienced as a child that left you feeling vulnerable and like you couldn’t count on the world or other people to keep you safe.
For many, childhood trauma has the unfortunate consequence of affecting your ways of thinking and of relating to the world and others as an adult. This can mean you find life at times challenging and difficult in ways that you might not be able to logically explain.
It’s important to break any misconceptions that childhood trauma only involves physical danger or harm.
Anything that leaves a child feeling alone, vulnerable, overwhelmed or terrified is traumatic. Psychological trauma occurs not over the ‘facts’ of ‘what really happened’, but because of your personal experience and perspective of what happened to you.
Obvious vs hidden forms of childhood trauma
Experiences are traumatic because they are unexpected, unwanted, and you are powerless to stop them.
Obvious trauma that tends to affect all involved including children includes:
But there are other less obvious experiences in childhood can be just as traumatic for a child and have just as serious consequences for the long-term.
These can environmental things like:
- living in poverty
- abruptly changing schools
- a sick sibling
- going through an operation
- living with parents who are always fighting
- living in a violent or dangerous community
- watching a parent being hurt
Or they might be emotional traumas such as:
- a humiliating experience at school
- being bullied
- being constantly put down and shamed by a parent figure
- not getting proper attention from a caregiver
- having to take care of a parent
- being neglected
- being abandoned by someone you love
Sadly, an all too common form of childhood trauma is sexual abuse. And many forms of sexual abuse go overlooked.
It is now understood that any form of inappropriate sexual behaviour can have long-lasting negative affects on a child. Being stripped down as a punishment for being ‘bad’, for example, or having a parent who makes constant inappropriate comments about your body, can both result in the long-term symptoms of trauma.
But aren’t children resilient?
The idea that a child will not be affected by what they do not understand is incorrect. Even if a child does not comprehend the logistics of what is happening, they can understand danger and discord, and this is what causes trauma.
Research suggests that even infants are affected by the trauma around them, such as the suffering of their caregivers.
In fact a child can be more affected by trauma than adults as they can sense danger but not ‘explain’ it to themselves like an adult, meaning they feel more terrified and vulnerable.
Traumatic experiences also have a stronger impact on children when you take into account that children’s brains are still developing and thus more vulnerable than those of adults. Trauma has been found to affect the growth of the brain cortex, which then affects learning, behaviour, and health, including things like memory, attention span, and your capacity to regulate your emotions and handle stress.
Did I suffer childhood trauma? Symptoms to look for
Not everyone reacts to trauma in the same way. Some people remember all details of what happened, many blank everything entirely from their mind and lose all memory of the experience.
Some people develop many symptoms from childhood onwards, and others have no symptoms of trauma but then suddenly, as an adult, something triggers them. This could be a stressful new job, a new relationship, or another life trauma like a bereavement or breakup.
In general, signs to look for as an adult that you suffered trauma as a child include but are not limited to:
Related mental health conditions to childhood trauma
If you suffered from childhood trauma, it’s common to suffer from anxiety and depression as an adult until you seek help to uncover and process your experience.
Other common mental health problems include addictive behaviour, self-harm, repressed anger or anger management issues, and eating disorders.
Sexual abuse in particular has been connected to the development of borderline personality disorder.
Some people who experienced childhood trauma also exhibit symptoms of PTSD. Sometimes these symptoms can manifest long after the trauma, although some victims of childhood trauma seem to spend their entire lives with the symptoms of emotional shock.
What do I do if I suspect I have experienced childhood trauma?
First of all, know that it is not your fault at all. What occurred was out of your control and it is unfortunate.
What is within in your control now is your ability to take steps to help yourself. The effects of childhood trauma are not known to magically resolve with time or age, but they do respond positively to focussed attention and support.
Information about recognising and resolving childhood trauma is now readily available on the internet, with forums you can connect with other sufferers on. There are also many books on the topic that can act as a starting point for exploring your experience, or bring a sense of relief to you just to know that you are not alone in your experience.
Be wary of playing the blame game when it comes to childhood trauma. Recognising you experienced a trauma can cause many emotions to rise up, including rage and anger. While it can be tempting to immediately contact family members or others who were involved and lash out, it’s advisable to do this after you have processed your feelings around the matter, and are in a stable place to deal with the outcome of such conversations.
This is one of the many reasons that it is highly recommended if you were the victim of a childhood trauma that you seek professional support and help.
A trained counsellor or psychotherapist can help you go back and discover just what occurred, how you contended with the trauma then, and how it is affecting you today. They create a safe space for you to process your feelings and can teach you techniques for processing and letting go of old patterns and emotions so you can finally move forward with your life.
Have you successfully overcome a childhood trauma? Share your story below and inspire others.