Childhood trauma, developmental trauma, complex trauma, attachment trauma. These are all terms referring to hurt we experienced as children which still impacts us as adults. We may have suffered trauma due to external circumstances such as a car accident, a long hospital stay, a chronic childhood illness or perpetrated by a stranger or more distant family member. Or we may have suffered the hurt at the hands of our caregivers. Whichever of these circumstances, we did not at that time receive the support necessary to process our pain.
Any hurt which leaves us feeling helpless, frightened, overwhelmed or profoundly unsafe is considered a trauma. This can be a “big ‘T’ trauma” such as sexual abuse or the death of a parent, or a “small ‘t’ trauma” such as a caregiver and child having very different relational styles. For example, an emotionally inhibited parent and a child that has an intense need for affection and proximity.
Regardless of whether the trauma was perpetrated by a caregiver or a stranger, our pain was not acknowledged and dealt with appropriately. Perhaps we were pre-verbal and unable to communicate our suffering. Perhaps we were threatened to not say anything. Perhaps we were blamed and made to feel too ashamed. However, the most common reason our pain was not appropriately acknowledged and acted upon at the time was because it was inflicted by the very person or persons who were responsible for us, our caregivers.
Trauma which has been inflicted by a caregiver is particularly complex in how it impacts a child. This can be perpetrated by an adult who has their own mental health difficulties, whether it be a diagnosed personality disorder or a volatile temper, addiction or depression. These adults will have most likely suffered their own childhood traumas. Even though they are supposed to be the responsible adult, they are unable to regulate themselves sufficiently to provide the consistent boundaries, safety, security, attention and interest that a child needs. The child finds itself in a double bind where it is dependent on the very person or people that hurt it. Feelings of fear and rage are an appropriate response when an individual is being abused by another. They are messengers alerting us to our need to defend ourselves, find safety and to set boundaries. These are all things we cannot do when our carers are physically bigger and stronger than us, when we are fully dependent on them for survival, and when we need their love and approval to develop. So our pain, our deep hurt, disappointment, sense of betrayal, rage, grief and fear and helplessness go unacknowledged, but not forgotten. In adapting as best as we can to survive in relationship to our abuser, we contort ourselves, split ourselves, suppress ourselves and repress ourselves.
Whatever we do, the feelings do not resolve themselves. They show up in other ways. Be it an inability to form close relationships, anxiety, depression, anger-management issues, addictions, low self-esteem, or over-working, amongst others. The feelings that were not processed because it was not safe, we turn back on ourselves. We start to ‘hate’ on ourselves, feeling shame, feeling guilty, telling ourselves that we are not good enough and inadequate. Clients who have experienced childhood trauma often have a very harsh inner critic. It acts like a sadistic slave driver or a bully, leaving them feeling anxious and depressed. These individuals may also have difficulty accessing a sense of personal power and ability to set healthy boundaries including getting appropriately angry. They may struggle professionally, remaining in jobs which do not match their abilities and often feeling helpless and fearful. Or they may detach themselves from their feelings and thus struggle with relationships or experience somatic issues such as chronic insomnia, migraines, back pains, chronic fatigue etc.
In part two of this article I look at how it is possible to heal childhood trauma.