I heard someone say that no one escapes childhood unscathed. I first thought that can’t be true. There are people with good childhoods and I’ve worked with many of them. But something about this statement intrigued me, so I pondered it.
What I came to believe was the idea that every child has needs that weren’t met, even by the best parents. Children don’t know what all their needs are, so how could parents know?
As an adult, thinking back to your childhood, I would bet you could come up with needs of yours that weren’t met. The question is how serious those needs were.
When does an unmet need in childhood amount to trauma?
Generally speaking, it is an experience that overwhelms the child in a way that causes an overload of stress that cannot be processed. The child’s stress response system is activated and may stay activated for an extended period of time. The effect of the experience becomes stuck within the child.
Even children need to make sense of their world. As children, we can’t think for ourselves and we believe everything our parents or caregivers told us.
So, the child will create a story to deal with the trauma in a way that makes sense to them. A story such as, “My mom (or dad) didn’t mean it.” Or “It was my fault.” Or “This is normal.”
This story can be retold by the child so often that it becomes their reality. It becomes true. And this story can be carried into adulthood as reality, when in fact, it is completely fictional.
The result can be unresolved trauma that causes major life challenges such as bad relationships, substance abuse, anxiety and depression. There can also be physical effects such as high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.
Everyone responds to their unique childhood trauma differently. It may affect you in adulthood and it may not. The more different types of traumas you’ve experienced, the greater likelihood you’re paying the price as an adult. Or, one type of trauma that is chronic and occurs over a long period of time can have the same effect.
There are some childhood experiences that are clearly traumatic. Sexual and physical abuse are obvious examples. Other experiences are not so clear. Neglect can be hard to define and explain. So can emotional abuse and psychological abuse.
I have had many clients who never thought they were abused and traumatized. But after we explored their childhoods and talked about what happened to them, it became clear that they did in fact experience trauma.
Then the question becomes how your traumatic childhood experiences have affected you as an adult.
There has been good research on what is termed Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACE’s. Google it if you want to know more. There is a simple, 10 question assessment that I give to my clients and that helps identify potential childhood trauma.
Some of the questions may surprise you. Did you know that the following experiences can be traumatic for a child?
- You witnessed domestic violence.
- Someone in your family went to prison.
- Someone in your family had a substance abuse problem.
- Someone in your family had a mental health issue.
- You felt unloved and unimportant.
There are several strategies I employ when working through childhood trauma with an adult. One is holding people accountable. The adults in your life, primarily mom and dad, were responsible for keeping you safe and healthy. If they didn’t do that, it’s important to hold them accountable in the sense that what happened to you was their fault, not yours.
That leads to another strategy which is, don’t take on what doesn’t belong to you. Often, an adult will feel some responsibility for what happened to them as a child. This is false. Don’t take on the responsibility for something that you couldn’t possibly have handled.
There is a much greater awareness now what childhood trauma is, how it affects children at the time and how it affects that child in adulthood. If you think you may have unresolved childhood trauma, the best advice I can give you is to get professional help as soon as possible.