How does childhood trauma influence your life?
This is not going to be an article with definitive information, as there are many different types of traumas with too many possible effects. But …
How does childhood trauma influence your life?
This is not going to be an article with definitive information, as there are many different types of traumas with too many possible effects. But let’s start the conversation.
Trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. While a bad hair day or a broken fingernail might seem deeply distressing to an individual, it doesn’t match the clinical definition of trauma that we’re discussing here. Beyond events beyond one’s control—such as a natural disaster or the death of a loved one—trauma can involve physical, sexual or repeated verbal abuse perpetrated by people you know or by total strangers.
For the purposes of this article, I’d like to focus on childhood sexual trauma.
While you might like to think this type of childhood trauma is a rare occurrence, the data says otherwise. In the U.S., research shows that one in three girls will be sexually traumatized before reaching the age of 18. This does not include physical and verbal abuse or neglect—just sexual abuse. For boys, one in five or six are sexually traumatized before reaching 18—though this figure is suspected to be low because boys are less likely to report sexual abuse.
Debilitating shame often co-exists with trauma; most of the abuse survivors I have worked with bear false responsibility for their own abuse.
As adults, they often are filled with shame that they didn’t do more to stop the abuse. I often remind them that not only were they too small to do anything about it, but also that perpetrators often groom their victims, which includes teaching them what will happen if they tell. Sometimes there are threats against other family members, but often the admonition is, “If you tell anyone, no one will believe you, and they will think you are a bad child for saying so.”
This begins the planting of shame, and the roots can pull victims into darkness that overtakes their sense of self-worth.
Shame and misplaced responsibility are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to talking about the effects of trauma. Sometimes the victim never gets to grow up to suffer the effects of trauma, because they are tragically killed or they commit suicide, which is not an uncommon choice for children who cannot rely on their primary caregivers for protection. I have seen children as young as age three attempt suicide.
Trauma is considered indicative of many mental health disorders, including reactive attachment disorder, schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder. Of course, there are many other mental health diagnoses that can have their roots in trauma: depression, anxiety disorders, intermittent explosive disorder and oppositional defiant disorder, to name a few.
The effects of trauma are many. Research has shown links—not causation, but correlation—to the following: lack of physical activity, smoking, alcoholism, drug use, missed work, severe obesity, diabetes, depression, suicide events and STDs.
None of this indicates that a person who has survived trauma is a bad person. We must stop judging people with symptoms by thinking less of them, and develop the compassion to instead ask, “What’s happened to you?”
It’s challenging for people who have never experienced trauma to believe that these horrific things happen to children. It’s not solely because they can’t believe the victims; it’s because their minds cannot comprehend that someone could do such horrific things to children. This only provides cover for the perpetrators.
If you are a parent, educate your children about predators. Distinguish the difference between good touch (a hug, a pat on the shoulder or holding hands), bad touch (a pinch, a slap or a bite), and secret touch (any touching where the child is told not to tell anyone). Teach children the proper names for their body parts. Shielding them from the words “penis” and “vagina” because they’re “dirty words” just provides more cover for the perpetrator. Introduce them to the concept of consent. For example, don’t force them to hug or kiss a relative if they don’t want to, or else they will learn they need to participate in exchanging touch, even when they don’t want to.
Finally, make sure your child knows they can always come to you.
There is a correlation between women with sexual trauma in their backgrounds and choosing partners who are also abusive. If your child comes to you with tales of trauma, believe them. While there are instances of false accusations—typically seen in older children—this kind of accusation is more often true.
Do not push your child for disclosures, though. You may not get accurate information that way. Simply let your child know you are available to hear them any time. You will believe them, support them and, most importantly, protect them. This is how to break the cycle of trauma.
Treating patients with trauma
When treating patients with early trauma, my initial approach, after developing a trusting relationship, is to help the person understand they are not permanently broken. To begin healing, they need to let go of the responsibility and place it with the perpetrator. Because the victim often has love for their perpetrator and may even have been convinced that the abuse was their fault, this can be a very difficult thing to do.
However, this product of manipulation breaks down when you consider that no child can sexually seduce a grown person. If a grownup and a child are engaged in any sexual activity, it is always the adult’s responsibility.
A child molester is often dealing with demons of their own, so when I help my clients place the responsibility with their perpetrator, it isn’t to blame them or punish them; it’s merely to help them understand the abuse originated with the adult, not with them. They are not responsible, even if some of the experience physically felt good, as sexual arousal does. This can help mitigate some of the shame.
The next step is to help the survivor learn to live in their body again. Many survivors have developed the ability to ignore signals from their body that tell them what they are feeling—an adaptive defense mechanism for what they were experiencing. However, it no longer serves them if they are having trauma responses in safe moments. Trauma responses are created from a trigger that can transform a trauma victim right back into visceral memories of the trauma. It can be difficult to tell the present from the memories.
The next step is to help clients learn relaxation techniques, so they can be relaxed even while experiencing triggers of the abuse. They can still be on guard, but without the muscular tension that always comes with the response.
Finally, when ready, they can work with a trained therapist to place the abuse in a narrative timeline and divorce the intense emotions from their memories.
If you have experienced trauma, one of the best things you can do is seek help from a professional who specializes in trauma-informed care. You want a therapist who believes in your power to heal, even if you don’t believe in that yourself. You need to understand that no matter what your worldview is, you are most definitely worth healing. Any thoughts you have to the contrary are part of the trauma that is designed to keep you a victim. No child deserves to be hurt at the hands of an adult.
No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here