Childhood Trauma And Its Effect On Adults
I once treated a young female client who had difficulty concentrating, a history of getting into abusive relationships, and difficulty recognizing unhealthy people or situations. In the course of therapy, we were able to trace these symptoms back to sexual abuse she had experienced during her childhood.
It is the terrible irony of childhood trauma that its effects often manifest in adulthood as simple and generic symptoms, making it difficult to identify the true problem.
What Is Childhood Trauma?
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, trauma is “an experience that causes physical, emotional, psychological distress, or harm. It is an event that is perceived and experienced as a threat to one’s safety or to the stability of one’s world.” For children, an act of abuse (physical, emotional or sexual), neglect, instability (e.g., parents’ divorce), exposure to violence, or loss (e.g., death of a loved one) can be traumatic events.
Sadly, childhood trauma is far too common. A powerful epidemiological study conducted by Vincent Felitti and Dr Robert Anda compared the current adult health status of 17,000 Americans to their Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE). Felitti and Anda found more than 60% of subjects had experienced at least one ACE, and more than 20% reported experiencing three or more.
Even one instance of trauma can have ripples, because trauma shakes a child’s sense of stability. A traumatic episode can be so enormous that his or her young mind cannot process it. Children often don’t have the coping skills to comprehend or even articulate what the trauma has done to them. So, while such an experience would be traumatic for a person of any age, its effects may linger for children.
As a result, their sense of trust and faith in the world become compromised. Particularly for children who experience trauma in their home, expectations about parental support, love and security are shaken. These effects manifest in different ways in different people, showing up in behaviours and thought processes that can get in the way of effective functioning.
In my client’s case, her ability to love and trust was weakened; she felt helpless. Other clients have experienced anxiety, startle response, dissociation, hypervigilance, acting out, helplessness, difficulty trusting others or trusting too easily, mood swings, fragile self-esteem, and impulsive behaviours or addiction.
For some, the fears that result from their childhood trauma may be so crippling as to lead to a pattern of passivity and difficulty asserting themselves in relationships – which may lead to a vicious cycle of pathological relationships. As Bessel Van Der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps The Score, writes: “Being traumatized means continuing to organize your life as if the trauma were still going on – unchanged and immutable – as every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past.”
When to Seek Help for Childhood Trauma
It is often difficult for people to clearly connect symptoms to their childhood trauma; there’s no single sign to tell every person when to get help.
Most people reach out for therapy when they notice their relationships suffering or they find themselves continually stressed or anxious. Sometimes clients may be referred by family members concerned about behaviours like acting out sexually or a dependence on drugs or alcohol, which are often connected to long-standing trauma. Still other clients turn to therapy when flashbacks or constant replays of negative emotion disrupt their ability to function.
However, not everyone who has experienced childhood trauma may require therapy. According to new research chaired by Jack Shonkoff, director of Harvard’s Center of the Developing Child, children who have experienced trauma deal better if they have stable, consistent support from an adult while going through it.
For instance, some children who have difficult home lives may be cushioned by the support of a school teacher or a counsellor. In Dr. Shonkoff’s words, “Resilience depends on supportive, responsive relationships and mastering a set of capabilities that can help us respond and adapt to adversity in healthy ways. It’s those capacities and relationships that can turn toxic stress into tolerable stress.”
But left unchecked, that toxic stress can have serious implications. Childhood trauma correlates strongly with poor physical and psychological health. Anda and Felitti found adults who had experienced traumatic events were more prone to developing severe medical conditions such as heart disease, chronic lung disease, and were also more likely to develop depression or anxiety, and adopt unhealthy behaviours such as smoking or alcoholism.
The good news is that while childhood trauma may leave a deep wound, the ability to heal remains intact. The resilience of the human body, its ability to unlearn past experiences and feelings, is a miracle. While in an ideal world, children exposed to trauma would get the help they need immediately, that is not the case; many adults struggle with the trauma they experienced years ago.
But research shows that a variety of treatments, including mindfulness and yoga programmes under the guidance of trauma care experts can help them learn self-regulation and relaxation. Therapy can also help. Talking to a psychologist can help people acknowledge the past trauma of their body and mind and help them become who they are capable of being.
The scars of trauma may never leave us, but we can choose to integrate them in our life and not let them define us. So many of my patients who were impacted by trauma children have, as adults, moved on to a life in which they have a greater sense of autonomy, self-regulation, trust, and love.