Childhood Trauma

Young girl sitting on rocky shore, holding a teddy bear

Serious adverse events and circumstances experienced up to and including the age of 18 can leave a lasting impact, leading to what is known as childhood trauma.  These events, which can be demoralizing, terrifying, perilous, or even life-threatening, often involve the individual directly but may be secondary to a destructive atmosphere within the home and/or community.

Childhood trauma may stem from, but is not limited to, the following:

  • physical and/or emotional parental neglect or alienation;
  • physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse;
  • extreme poverty;
  • mental illness within the household;
  • domestic or community violence;
  • parental separation or divorce; and
  • loss of a parent due to substance abuse, incarceration, illness, or suicide.

Child traumatic stress, as outlined by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), occurs when children and adolescents are met with trauma that exceeds their ability to cope.  This toxic stress has been found to affect the immune system and brain development, consequently impairing basic cognitive processes such as perception, attention, decision-making, and learning abilities.  Many children who experience toxic stress exist in a perpetual state of anxiety and helplessness, many harboring feelings of inadequacy, rejection, and an intense fear of their own death and/or that of another to whom they feel close.  In the absence of trauma-focused therapy, the damaging effects of this protracted stress often linger into adulthood, manifesting in deleterious ways.

Left unexplored, adult survivors of childhood trauma are more likely than their peers to experience poor academic or work performance, leading to unstable employment histories and financial difficulties. They are more susceptible to anxiety, depression, substance abuse, chronic illnesses, and suicidal thoughts than individuals who have not experienced such trauma. Growing up in an environment marked by insecurity often alters one’s perception of the world, and this cynicism, when carried into adulthood, is unwittingly passed on to the children of trauma survivors, perpetuating the cycle of toxic stress.

Many adult survivors may repress or even suppress painful memories in a misguided attempt to cope with life.  Both the psychological shield of repression and counterproductive conscious act of suppression can lead to a vague sense of inadequacy, apprehension, distrust, and an inability to establish healthy, stable relationships.  This, in turn, can lead to avoidance of intimacy or, worse, an increased risk of becoming involved with physically and/or emotionally abusive partners, adding to their ever-present feeling of being “bad” or “less-than.”  Most live lives shrouded in a cloak of shame wrapped around their shoulders by others, without a clear understanding of the root cause of their perceived flaws.

If we can envision ourselves as a tree, life is the soil in which we are planted; community, family and upbringing are the roots anchoring us; and branches represent the diverse directions we can take.  Trauma-focused therapy digs deeply into the soil, uncovering the root(s) of the issue; works its way through the branches; and addresses the many leaves, which represent the vitality of our well-being.  

When an adult survivor of childhood trauma is ready to tap into the strength within and engage in guided introspection, a skilled therapist can serve as the guide to addressing the roots of a difficult past.  Once the decision is made to undertake the journey of healing, it is absolutely possible to break free from a traumatic past and lead a peaceful life.  

Utilizing modalities such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), acceptance and commitment therapy, yoga and meditation…  trauma-focused therapy is the vehicle to reach the destination of a vibrant and fulfilling future.

No one should have to endure the lifelong effects of childhood trauma. Reach out to a mental health counselor to experience the freedom you deserve.

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