What Is Childhood Trauma?

scared girlThe roots of most addictive behaviors have to do with unresolved childhood trauma. People become dependent (or addicted) to substances or behaviors because they learned to turn to them in early life as a way of coping.

I’m citing a couple of great (and brief) articles about childhood trauma, to give you some background on this topic. First, there is a great article on the Uplift Program website about childhood trauma. Included in the article is a great definition, from a 1992 American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) report. They define childhood trauma as “a repeated pattern of damaging interactions between parent(s) [or, presumably, other significant adults] and child that becomes typical of the relationship.”

Here are some quotes from the article:

“Nearly every researcher agrees that early childhood traumas (i.e. those that happen before the age of six) lie at the root of most long-term depression and anxiety, and many emotional and psychological illnesses. Severe traumas can even alter the very chemistry and physiology of the brain itself! Among mental health professionals, and even some childhood development specialists, there is sometimes a lack of understanding over exactly what constitutes childhood trauma.

“In addition to physical, sexual and verbal abuse, childhood trauma can include anything that causes the child to feel worthless, unlovable, insecure, and even endangered, or as if his only value lies in meeting someone else’s needs. Examples cited in the report include “belittling, degrading or ridiculing a child; making him or her feel unsafe [including threat of abandonment]; failing to express affection, caring and love; neglecting mental health, medical or educational needs.”

It’s also interesting – and important – to note that experiences which lead to what we might look back on as childhood trauma, and rarely one-time events. They are patterns or repeated experiences, that shape the strutcture of the brain. Note:

“The kinds of childhood traumas that lead to depression, anxiety, PTSD, ADD/ADHD are rarely one-off events (even a divorce may be preceded by a long period of acrimony or instability). Single events, no matter how traumatic, are most often forgotten by young children since as the brain develops it disposes of the synaptic connections (links between brain cells or neurons) that “remember” them. Repeated events build up more of these connections and thus stay in the mind–though not necessarily in the recoverable memory.”

Another great article entitled “Trauma and PTSD Recovery” comes from the “recovery-man” website. Here are some gems:

People naturally develop coping mechanisms when they have been traumatized. (Trauma based attachments.) These are learned survival skills, which work to protect the psyche during and immediately following the trauma. Eventually these coping mechanisms work against healthy emotional functioning.  (An example being an inability to trust based on childhood abuse, this protects the child  during the abusive episodes, but later severely compromises intimacy and adult relationships.)

Symptoms of Trauma and PTSD Include:

“The symptom profile of adults who were abused as children includes posttraumatic and dissociative disorders combined with depression, anxiety syndromes, and addictions. These symptoms include (1) recurrent depression; (2) anxiety, panic, and phobias; (3) anger and rage; (4) low self-esteem, and feeling damaged and/or worthless; (5) shame; (6) somatic pain syndromes (7) self-destructive thoughts and/or behavior; (8) substance abuse; (9) eating disorders: bulimia, anorexia, and compulsive overeating; (10) relationship and intimacy difficulties; (11) sexual dysfunction, including addictions and avoidance; (12) time loss, memory gaps, and a sense of unreality; (13) flashbacks, intrusive thoughts and images of trauma; (14) hypervigilance; (15) sleep disturbances: nightmares, insomnia, and sleepwalking; and (16) alternative states of consciousness or personalities.”
– Joan A. Turkus, M.D.

Trauma recovery deals with reworking the trauma based attachments to form healthier adult coping skills.  Strangely, many trauma survivors unconsciously seek out people,  activities, or engage in behaviors that “mirror” their original trauma. This is the mind’s way of attempting to rework the trauma based attachment.  Trauma recovery attempts to bring these trauma based attachments into consciousness and learn new coping skills. “That was then, this is now – today I can take care of myself and make healthier choices.”

3 thoughts on “What Is Childhood Trauma?”

  1. Interesting article and one which should be more widely known about in my view. Your level of detail is good and the clarity of writing is excellent. I have bookmarked it for you so that others will be able to see what you have to say.

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