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How Does Childhood Trauma Affect Behaviour in Adulthood?

“Trauma is personal. It does not disappear if it is not validated. When it is ignored or invalidated the silent screams continue internally heard only by the one held captive. When someone enters the pain and hears the screams healing can begin.”

Danielle Bernock

What exactly is childhood trauma?

Most people today have heard of childhood trauma, either during a conversation in the workplace, while watching a movie, or coming across a random video on social media of a popular psychologist selling a course. When a term becomes established in popular culture and the collective consciousness, misconceptions can crop up. This is especially complex when most of us have access to social media platforms which grant an individual the potential to spread information to a huge audience within a few hours. It’s easy to access a multitude of posts and content across social media from this past year alone, where individuals share their personal experiences around childhood trauma.  While no one wishes to diminish the very real interpretation of someone’s suffering or distress, some of the content posted and readily accessed isn’t quite accurate. There’s a difference between a child being distressed/disappointed and being traumatised.

Health professionals specialising in childhood trauma agree that a trauma occurs when a child has experienced a dangerous, frightening, and violent experience that presents a threat to the child’s life or integrity of the child’s body. The aftereffects of a traumatic event will persist long after the event itself.

YoungMinds UK charity describes child trauma as follows: “‘Trauma’ is used to describe both one-off events and things that are experienced over months or years, for example within a young person’s family or peer relationships. A traumatic experience often involves a threat to a young person’s physical or emotional safety, and a sense of being trapped, powerless or unsupported in the face of a perceived danger or in the time afterwards.” The author concludes: “Ultimately, whether or not an event or experience is traumatic for a young person depends on how it makes them feel as an individual. One child can find an event traumatic while another does not. The way we react to and experience what happens to us is shaped by all kinds of factors — from our personality to our life history, the support available to us, our relationships, our community and our culture.”

At Addcounsel, we understand how devastating the impact of lingering childhood trauma can be in adulthood. We have identified some of the most common causes or origins of childhood trauma:

  • The sudden or unexpected loss of a loved one, especially a tragic death (a murder, a fatal accident, heart attack, stroke etc.)
  • Emotional, psychological, physical, and sexual abuse
  • Severe and continuous neglect
  • Being a victim of cruelty, discrimination, racism, sexism, prejudice or witnessing horrific acts/events
  • Being a victim of terrorism and/or witnessing a terrorist act in person
  • Witnessing or being involved in mass violence such as a school shooting or war crimes
  • A natural disaster causing death such as an earthquake or flooding
  • Military family-related stressors
  • A traumatic separation. For instance, an infant being separated from their mother/parent as is often the case when refugees and asylum seekers flee danger and seek refuge elsewhere
  • A life-threatening or terminal illness (the child themselves or a loved one)

What are the signs that a child has unhealed trauma?

It’s sadly the case that a child often will not talk to a responsible adult (or anyone for that matter) about a traumatic incident or ongoing trauma.  This usually occurs if a family member is involved in or is actively causing the trauma/complex trauma. Gabor Maté, a physician and author featured in the Wisdom of Trauma film emphasises the significance of addressing pain in children. Maté states: “Children don’t get traumatized because they were hurt, they get traumatized because they were alone with the hurt.” Here are some of the signs and symptoms to look out for:

  • Random and out of character angry outbursts and meltdowns (this should be differentiated from a child on the autism spectrum disorder ASD)
  • Starting to withdraw from spending time with family, friends, and attempting to avoid school
  • Ongoing nightmares, flashbacks and memories associated with a traumatic event and/or complex trauma. Experiencing persistent distressing thoughts
  • A child may start to show signs of self-harm such as pinching themselves, hitting themselves with objects, banging their heads on the wall, cutting, and burning
  • A child may avoid talking about a traumatic event
  • Feeling threatened and deeply troubled when confronted by anything that triggers the memory of the event
  • Change in appetite. The traumatised child may develop a larger appetite or restrict food intake/avoid food entirely
  • Memory loss (often short-term memory)
  • Secretly using alcohol or even illegal mood-altering drugs

How does a childhood trauma affect an adult’s behaviour?

Survivors of childhood trauma (complex or otherwise) will often experience deep feelings of shame, misplaced guilt, helplessness, grief, anger/rage and likely some degree of self-loathing. Such feelings may very well be masked or supressed, especially if it’s necessary to do so; survivors of childhood trauma may instinctively and intuitively know that it’s not safe or appropriate to open deep supressed emotional wounds in their living and/or working environment. This is often the reason that many adults who have experienced childhood trauma don’t seek help until they either burn out or until they reach the point where they can no longer continue masking their pain.  Or they may simply find that their survival traits which were fuelled by traumatic wounds no longer serve them. Some will go on to be diagnosed with PTSD, others with complex PTSD.  Both mental health conditions will require therapy and a long-term strategy to devise a recovery programme which will meet the needs of the individual.

Attachment issues will likely transpire in adolescent and adulthood if childhood trauma hasn’t been recognised and appropriately treated. Attachment issues frequently manifest in trauma bonding and in some cases developing inappropriate and harmful relationships (particularly romantic relationships) which provide the environment to recreate or rekindle childhood traumatic experiences.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports on the long-term health consequences of childhood trauma: “Traumatic experiences in childhood have been linked to increased medical conditions throughout the individuals’ lives. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study is a longitudinal study that explores the long-lasting impact of childhood trauma into adulthood. The ACE Study includes over 17,000 participants ranging in age from 19 to 90. Researchers gathered medical histories over time while also collecting data on the subjects’ childhood exposure to abuse, violence, and impaired caregivers.” The author continues: “Results indicated that nearly 64% of participants experienced at least one exposure, and of those, 69% reported two or more incidents of childhood trauma. Results demonstrated the connection between childhood trauma exposure, high-risk behaviors (e.g., smoking, unprotected sex), chronic illness such as heart disease and cancer, and early death.”

Our team at Addcounsel recognise how hard it is to continue living with unaddressed and unhealed childhood trauma in adulthood, especially as an individual accumulates more responsibilities such as raising a family and building/sustaining highly stressful professional lives.

Adults who have experienced childhood trauma are much more likely to develop an addiction and/or addictive behaviours. This doesn’t mean that childhood trauma is the cause of an addiction, but most with an addiction have had a traumatic experience (or commonly many experiences) in childhood. A teenager or young adult who hasn’t received treatment for childhood complex trauma and who may still be in denial (therefore masking) may find immediate relief and comfort from using alcohol or powerful over the counter medications which could lead to misuse or dependency; where there’s a history of addiction in the family, misusing a mood-altering substance or self-medicating can rapidly progress to a full-blown addiction.

Here are the most common ways childhood trauma impacts adults:

  • Higher risk of developing a dependency on a mood-altering substance (such as alcohol or an opioid) and developing an addiction/addiction behaviour
  • Higher risk of suffering from a mental health condition and/or dual diagnosis
  • Attachment bonding issues leading to struggling to select and maintain healthy and fulfilling relationships
  • Physical health problems caused by chronic stress and continuous inflammation
  • Very low self-worth and self-esteem
  • Higher risk of ongoing self-harm, suicide attempts or ultimately suicide

Contact us today

At Addcounsel, we understand the impact of childhood trauma and PTSD and complex PTSD, and how it impacts everyday life. Without the appropriate treatment, childhood trauma will compromise interpersonal relations and will eventually have a severe impact on physical and mental health. You don’t have to go through this alone. Our specialists have developed a “whole person” approach to childhood trauma and PTSD treatment, addressing the symptoms, triggers, and causes of your condition. We’ll help you develop effective, lifelong strategies tomanage trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, ensuring a sustained and long-term recovery.

We offer treatment for addiction at one of our private, luxury rehab facilities in Knightsbridge, Chelsea, and Mayfair, London, which take place in an intimate, one-to-one setting – no groups, no other patients. Your comfort, safety and privacy are our priority. Contact us today to start your recovery.

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