Childhood has the potential to create some of our finest memories that will stay with us forever, and comfort us through difficult times in the future. But our ability to be easily shaped during this period also carries some risks. Negative or traumatic experiences early in life can influence the direction of a person’s adult life as well, and the effects of childhood trauma are important to understand. These can include a range of psychological issues, of varying severity, that may need trauma/PTSD treatment so that the person can lead a full and enriching life.
What is a Traumatic Childhood?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (USA), childhood trauma is defined as: “The experience of an event by a child that is emotionally painful or distressful, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects.” Such an event can take many forms, which include but are not limited to the following:
Children need support from their families and the people around them, and the betrayal of this responsibility can cause great physical and mental injury. The term ‘abuse’ encompasses emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, any of which can lead to long-term consequences.
Trauma Originating in The Child’s Immediate Environment
Children depend on their immediate environment for much of their emotional development. When children witness trauma experienced by others around them, they also absorb much of the distress themselves. Unstable environments including extreme stress, substance abuse, violence (especially to the mother), or mentally ill members of the household can negatively influence personal growth in childhood. Other highly emotional events, such as parental separation through divorce or a household member sent to prison, can leave emotional scars as well.
When a child’s family or guardians are unable or unwilling to meet their basic physical or emotional needs, the child’s inner growth may suffer as a result. If they are abandoned by their family or guardian, the child will likewise be left without the guidance and support they depend on through their early years.
How does Trauma Affect a Child?
Post-traumatic stress disorder is among the long-term effects of the types of experiences listed above, although that affliction can manifest itself in a variety of ways.
It is true that distress and trauma do not necessarily lead to long-term consequences – and in many cases children are able to make a quick and full recovery from events which appear to be emotionally or physically harmful. In some instances, traumatic experiences can lead to symptoms that last weeks or months, but fall short of developing into PTSD.
l, however, PTSD from childhood trauma is a more common occurrence than many would expect. Affected children often find it difficult to trust others due to the distress caused by their previous experiences, and some turn to anti-social behaviour as an outlet for their emotions.
One common symptom of a traumatic event is the phenomenon of repeatedly re-experiencing the trauma in their own minds, perhaps leading the child to avoid emotional triggers that call the disturbing event back into their thoughts. To break free from this troubling mental loop, many children become increasingly vigilant and alert in an effort to avoid situations similar to the ones that caused the initial trauma.
Other Childhood Trauma Symptoms Include:
- Fear and anxiety, as well as feelings of isolation leading to depression.
- Anger, aggression, and self-destructive behaviour.
- Low self-esteem.
- Changes in appetite.
- Difficulty sleeping or focusing on schoolwork.
- An increased tendency to worry, or become sad, irritable, or angry.
- Poor physical health, such as headaches and stomachaches.
Failure to treat these symptoms, and especially the underlying psychological issues at the heart of long-term distress, can lead to many of the above symptoms remaining into adulthood.
How do Traumatic Events Affect the Brain?
As mentioned earlier, much of our brain development occurs during childhood – and requires a stable, supportive environment in order to achieve a healthy internal balance. When the brain is denied access to any of these key ingredients, the effects can often be felt and observed deep into a person’s life.
Learning and memory issues, inadequate social skills, and problems relating to other people are among the many possible indications that an adult’s brain development may have been affected by childhood trauma. Difficulty with self-control and self-regulation, perhaps leading to behavioural problems, can also suggest potential PTSD from childhood trauma.
General emotional and psychological health issues are also common to adults who experienced obstacles to healthy development when they were younger. Sub-standard planning and prioritising abilities, along with a tendency to procrastinate, may also result indirectly from childhood trauma.
Symptoms such as these, of course, are not proof of the effects (or even existence) of traumatic events in any particular person. Such a diagnosis must be made after a careful examination of an individual and their personal history by a qualified professional, at which point treatment options can be considered if appropriate.
Childhood Trauma Symptoms in Adults
When people are confronted by events causing serious trauma, there is a tendency to develop various coping mechanisms to help the body and mind deal with the challenge that the harmful event has posed to their view of the world. These can have the benefit of allowing short-term escape from distress, but also bring along many unintended side effects which can ultimately prove harmful.
We list four common coping mechanisms below, to help you recognise some of the more abstract symptoms of potential trauma in a person’s life.
- Acting passively. The world can sometimes feel like a dangerous place, and for some people, the urge to retreat inside themselves can be overwhelming. Such people have perhaps learned to display withdrawn behaviour due to previous neglect, and the loss of trust in the outside world that such an experience can lead to. They learn to block the rising tide of fear and anger through emotional detachment, and then use that detachment as a way to cope with the possibility of future threats and disappointments as well.
- Embracing victimhood. People who experience abuse sometimes fall into the trap of believing that they have deserved their treatment. Constantly thinking and speaking in negative ways can affect the way our brains process the world around us, leading us to forget that we all have the power to influence our lives in a positive direction from now on. It is important to remember that our decisions and actions can determine our future – especially for adults.
- Becoming passive-aggressive. It is natural for people to feel anger sometimes, but when young people are exposed to too much of it, they may begin to feel that any expression of anger is unhealthy – and seek to suppress that anger in themselves. But unaddressed and unresolved anger does not disappear; it merely remains in place, taking an indirect form.
- Embodying a ‘false self’. If people fail to receive the care and attention they need in their youth, one common response is to modify their behaviour to try to become the kind of child their parents (or relatives, or peers) would want them to be. Every compromise has a cost, however, and by embracing the values of those who neglect or abuse us, we lose a little bit of our own identity. It is normal to present a ‘public’ face to the world, but when we bury our true selves in the process, we end up living a life that isn’t entirely our own.
The coping mechanisms outlined above may lead to temporary relief from certain sources of stress, yet they fail to address the underlying problem – indeed, they serve to mask its existence, making it less accessible for efforts aimed at treating such deep wounds. These psychological strategies also hinder a person’s ability to function in their daily life in a balanced and engaging way with the outside world, as they all have at their essence a form of hiding from a feared reality.
Although such efforts to avoid confrontation may be tempting to pursue, true healing begins when a problem is directly acknowledged and treated with care. Fortunately, for survivors of childhood trauma, help is available and treatment does exist to alleviate long-term symptoms and put affected people of all ages back on the road to inner balance and peace.
How can Childhood Trauma be Treated?
Lessening the effects of childhood trauma involves a similar approach for children and adults alike, and that approach must be grounded in sensitivity and trust. It is important to encourage the afflicted person to talk about their feelings and their emotions, while gently reassuring them that you are committed to keeping them safe. Daily routines are helpful, as they provide an additional measure of much-needed stability.
The affected person will have questions, which you must be prepared to answer candidly. If done well, this exchange will help the person come to understand that they are not alone, and can face their fears with the proper level of support. Psychotherapy, often in the form of cognitive behavioural therapy, may be necessary to help patients develop a more balanced perception of their situation. This new thought process can in turn help them adopt a more positive way of behaving.
Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) is another effective form of psychotherapy that can be helpful in reducing the power of negative stimuli. The process works by exposing the patient to imagery that would normally provoke stress in the patient, while simultaneously employing a set of techniques that prevent an emotional reaction from taking place. Through repetition and conditioning, the patient becomes less affected by triggers that may previously have seemed overwhelming.
Depending on the child’s age and other circumstances, play therapy or family therapy may also provide an important outlet for their emotions, offering a way back to a healthier and more normal way of living. In many cases, the additional step of medication can also help reduce anxiety and reach a positive internal balance.
Professional Trauma Treatment for a Brighter Tomorrow
The Dawn Medical Rehab and Wellness Centre is an excellent resource for adults who need help moving past the long-term effects of childhood trauma. We can provide personalised, round-the-clock trauma treatment for every patient, focusing on effective therapeutic techniques to help you or your loved one come to terms with past events in a healthy and forward-looking way.
We begin our treatment with an interview and diagnosis in order to identify the primary cause of the trauma and assess the ongoing symptoms. Our therapists are equipped to deal with the effects of co-occurring disorders, in which a patient suffers from two or more types of psychological issue at the same time.
Such complex cases require special care and experience, and our 1:1 staff to client ratio allows for a properly supportive environment where healing can flourish over time. Contact us today to learn more about how our trauma specialists can help you or a loved one move beyond the trying moments of the past – and into a better, more secure, and more satisfying future.