Many of us are carrying heavy childhood trauma and we don't even know it.
What is "childhood trauma"?
During our formative years, we are completely reliant on our outside stimuli to teach us about the world and ourselves. Children's minds are like sponges - they really don't have the capacity to question, doubt or test any of the information they are being fed. During the first four to five years, most of a child's comprehension is formed based on the information they have been given by their parents or primary caregivers. This child is being taught how to identify things, people, themselves, places, sensations and desires. The child is learning how to communicate and interact with their world. The child is learning where their place is in the world.
As the child develops, they are able to comprehend more. They start to explore the realm of wonder; begin rationalise, imagine, predict, perceive, speculate, suggest and problem-solve. How this is done is based on the initial upbringing - was the child encouraged to explore and learn? Was the child sheltered, over-protected and controlled? Do the parents have realistic, flexible expectations for their child? Did/do the parents invest in their child's learning and development? Some children are too shy to try new things because they were always "babied". Other children are aggressive, lack self control and throw tantrums because they were never taught how to appropriately express themselves.
When the term, "childhood trauma" is used, most people automatically associate that as an outcome of child abuse.
Surprisingly, childhood trauma happens in many different ways and most people never identify this as their core issue. They suffer for years with the emotional and mental scars of childhood trauma with no knowing how they got there or how to treat them.
What is trauma?
There are two types of trauma: physical and psychological. Trauma is caused by "a deeply distressing or disturbing experience" and defined as "emotional shock following a stressful event or a physical injury, which may lead to long-term neurosis" - Oxford.
Therefore, childhood trauma relates to any "deeply distressing or disturbing experiences" that happened to you (or were witnessed by you) during childhood.
Examples of childhood trauma:
- not being listened to, believed, trusted (by parents, law enforcement, teachers, friends, adults in general)
- experiencing a lack in the provision of your needs (emotional, physical, mental, environmental, educational, social)
- being told that there is something wrong with you
- bad or sudden accidents or illnesses
- loss or death (break ups, divorce, death, relocating)
- sibling abuse
- experiencing or witnessing abuse by adults (physical, emotional, sexual, psychological, neglect)
- being raised in an environment unfit for children
- being raised to hate, discriminate, bully; forced to fight, steal, lie, cheat
- toxic relationships with parents, siblings
- being forced to believe and accept certain beliefs and ideas (religious, scientific, political, racial, sexist)
- being bullied (called names, having intelligence undermined, teasing, being treated worse than siblings)
- being abused or ignored by authoritive figures and adults in your life (teachers, law enforcement, role models, community figures)
- living in poverty
- witnessing or being the victim of violence
However, the definition of trauma is incredibly relative to the individual. It seems to depend on whatever that person perceives as a "deeply distressing or disturbing experience".
How is childhood trauma affecting me right now?
Well... imagine you go to the rescue shelter.
You've decided to adopt a mature dog and give them a happy home for their final years of life. There are many dogs there to choose from. Big dogs, small dogs. They all have a different temperament. Each has their own background story. The kennel manager walks you past each one and gives you a little description of each one.
Some dogs are cowering in the back of the kennel, eye-balling you as you walk past. Others are wedging their noses through the wire in a desperate attempt to be petted.
In a very similar way, humans become products of their past. They either learn to trust or fear things. People. Places. Situations. Experiences. Feelings.
Childhood is the period in life where we are taking it all in, learning to learn. Learning about our existence and everything in it. As we get older, we are capable of comprehending and retaining more. We never stop learning. But childhood is where it all starts. They truly are the "formative years".
A child learns about the relationship between human beings based on what they observe and how they are being treated. Within the family, they observe how men treat women and women treat men. How parents treat their children and how children respond to their parents. They observe how their parents respond to the world, to the people in their lives. The child learns what a "normal" family looks like based on their own upbringing and the lives of their friends. They observe how the world responds to them - individually and as a family. They listen to the way the adults in their lives speak about people on TV, their friends, their family members, politics, the bills, stresses in life, work and money. They believe what their parents tell them about the world and other people.
I think you get the point.
And I think most people can identify at least one thing, moment or incident in their childhood which they would define as a "distressing or disturbing experience".
Which means that most of us have experienced childhood trauma in some way, shape or form. We don't usually realise it or can even identify it until it's rearing its ugly head in our lives, messing with our mental health and destroying our lives.
"Why can't I trust anybody?" (Nobody trusted you as a child; you were betrayed by a family member or friend; people lied to you; people made you lie for them)
"Why do I have abandonment issues?" (You were forced to move a lot; someone close to you left or died; parents divorced; made to feel like you're always 'picked last' or 'least favourite')
"Why can't I control my anger?" (Never being allowed to express yourself; witnessing violence; being subjected to violence; feeling the need/forced to suppress issue/s that caused rage)
"Why do I feel guilty all the time?" (Being blamed; raised to believe in sin; punished excessively and harshly; strict, unrealistic expectations; being shamed)
"I just want to feel like I'm good enough." (Unrealistic expectations; severe punishments; adopted submissive coping mechanism; compared to siblings/others; feeling need to "earn love")
"I feel like nobody listens to me." (Ideas and opinions were rejected; self-expression was discouraged; parents/adults always 'right'; felt shut down each time they tried to speak)
Adulthood & The Distressed Inner Child
We bring our inner child with us as we move into adulthood. That's why most of us would say that we're really just all kids in big shoes, running around and pretending like we know what we're doing... when truthfully, most of us still feel like we're still kids at heart. We'd rather be playing. Making things. Drawing. Singing. Dancing. Being silly. Laughing. Going on adventures. Imagining things. Being completely spontaneous. And taking lots and lots of naps and eating chicken nuggies. ("yes, I do want to add "nuggies" to the dictionary, please")
The "inner child" isn't an alter ego or an apparition that's going to come to you. The inner child IS you. It's the version of you from your childhood, from whichever age you want to imagine it - depending on what you want to address or however you prefer to see yourself in that period of your life. It's a concept that's used as a tool to unpack and understand your childhood, the traumas you experienced and once you can identify them, you can then treat them directly if you wish.
Imagine yourself at any age you choose. Have the child sit down somewhere with you in the room. Do they want to say anything? Are they looking at you? What sort of expression do they have on their face? Is there a feeling you get from imagining yourself in the presence of your younger self? How do you think the child is feeling?
Think about where you were living at that age. Were you still at school? Who were your friends at that age? Did anything significant happen to you or someone you knew at that age?
Why did you pick this age?
It might feel crazy - but start to have inner dialogue with the child. After all, it's just you. It's you talking to you. You will give yourself the answers if you just open up and let go. Begin asking the child anything you wish. Have fun with it. Amuse yourself. Even just joke around with it and make fun of it just because you're doing what I'm telling you to
When you responded "as the child", what did they say? Were the responses blunt and short or enthusiastic, strange, imaginative, funny or lengthy?
Rather than asking your inner child any more questions, now think to the issues that led you to pick this age. What were you experiencing at the time?
Tell the child a few affirmations until your adult self begins to react in real time. You might find yourself struggling to get the words out, you may start to get teary or find yourself becoming emotional. That's the indication that your inner child is hearing these words. You've found it. You've identified where the trauma lies.
Imagine yourself as a child and speak to them, saying things like:
- You are important. Your views are important. Your ideas are important. Your personality is important. Your expression is important. Your voice is important.
- You are worthy of love, safety, shelter, protection, affection, attention, respect, trust, responsibility, education, health, a positive environment and a chance to succeed
- You make me happy. I love to see you dance, sing, play music, make art, help others, express yourself, enjoy your life, laugh and how you light up around your favourite people.
- I believe you. I understand what you went through, what your intention was, what you meant, that you didn't mean for that to happen. I know you tried.
- I forgive you. I know you made a mistake. I know you messed up. We can get through this. We'll let it go and move on together.
- I couldn't protect you before but I'm here now. You don't have to be scared any more. I will protect you. I will defend you.
- I'm listening. I hear you. You can talk to me any time you like. I will always listen to you.
Whichever way works for you, whether you feel like you need to imagine a version of yourself, talk to a photo or simply addressing yourself in the mirror - or some other way that feels comfortable to you - you NEED to address yourself and YOUR traumas. You either know what they are, or you know that they're there and you've been avoiding them or suppressing them because you're messed up and you don't know why. The meds still aren't working; the "coping" techniques and therapies just don't stick with you.
Most of the time it's going to come back to your childhood.
Have a coffee with a trusted friend or a close family member and bring up your childhood. Delve deep. Try to find whatever it is that is linked to the issue you're concerned about. It's amazing how being able to vent to a friend or even online in a forum like this to complete strangers - even just to see your words written down in front of you - can be incredibly therapeutic and enlightening. If given the opportunity just to speak or express oneself, uninterrupted, for as long as you need to can bring out surprising revelations and realisations, emotional reactions and feelings that you may not have known were even there.
- Fear of commitment? - Abandonment issues? - Anger issues? - Mental illnesses? - Breakdowns? - Outbursts? - Mood swings? - Depression? - Anxiety? - Phobias? - Addictions?
Most of the time, it stems from an issue that happened - trauma - in your childhood.
Become the Parent you needed as a Child
It's just a way of saying - be kind to yourself. When you see these issues arise - like extreme jealousy because of your abandonment and self esteem issues - "be the parent" and assure the "inner child" that you are safe. That you are loved. That you are enough, you are worthy and you are free to be just the way you are. Listen to the inner child like you wanted to be listened to. Stop denying yourself those feelings - to be able to cry, or get angry, or to get upset, or to be disappointed. Allow the "inner child" to express themselves and be there as "the parent" to love and support them through it.
When your depression rears up, spend some time in "parent mode" creating a safe space for the inner child so that you can let your inner child fall into the comfort and security of this space. You know what the child needs when they feel this way and now, you can make sure they have that provided for them! When anxiety comes knocking, you need to be both the adult and the child. Honour the child, who is having the panic attack. Who just can't find enough strength to go out today. Honour those feelings instead of forcing yourself to repress them. "Be the parent" you needed as a child. What do you need to support yourself though this? Stop getting mad at yourself for being anxious all the time. A good parent accepts their child's condition and they do what they can to manage and treat it as best as they can.
A good parent will go to the ends of the earth to find the right treatment for their child. A good parent never stops trying to make better choices. A good parent accepts that they'll never stop learning. A good parent can admit that they make mistakes. A good parent still knows how to have fun and play. A good parent listens to their child, hears them and respects them. A good parent meets their child's needs.
You need to become the parent you needed when you were a child as part of the healing process. (Not the parent you wanted. I know we all wanted rockstar, multi-million dollar celebrity parents with mansions and sports cars.)
If "parent" hits too close to home, be the trusted adult you needed as a kid.
Whatever the case, you need to start listening to the inner child.
They hold the key.