Childhood Trauma: Abuse, Neglect & Complex PTSD
Childhood experiences have deep and long-lasting effects on the rest of our lives. When early events and relationships are abusive or neglectful they cause problems in multiple areas of life. Childhood is an essential period in the development of our sense of self, our attachment to others, our feelings of safety, security and trust in the world, and our ability to manage our emotions.
When parents or caregivers can’t provide “good enough” parenting, or are intentionally hurtful, people often suffer from what we refer to as developmental trauma or complex PTSD. Developmental and complex trauma (unlike one-time or shock trauma) happens in family environments and is often repeatedly perpetrated by family members. The consequences of these traumas affect both the mind and body. All your life you may have had a sense that something is wrong but you don’t quite know what it is.
Early childhood experiences and family dynamics may result in traumas of omission or commission, or both:
Omission results from what wasn’t there. Lack of love, caring, and comfort from parents means your emotional needs were not met. These are parents who may have been well meaning but due to their own histories had limited capacity to be available for their children. As a result, you may be experiencing symptoms of emotional neglect. You don’t know what your feelings and needs are, and you don’t know how to go about getting those needs met in relationships. As a result, you likely feel empty, lonely, and isolated from others. Your life may lack a sense of meaning and direction. You may find yourself minimizing your experiences by saying, “I was never hit,” and “things weren’t that bad.”
Traumas of commission result when parents were overtly dismissing, humiliating, or abusive. This can include verbal, emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse. Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in abusive environments experience a multitude of mental and physical problems. You may be experiencing anxiety, depression, worthlessness/shame and flashbacks into traumatic events. Or you may be trying very hard to keep painful feelings below the surface and therefore go through life feeling numb or “frozen.”
Research on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES)
In the mental health community, and in the culture at large, we’re learning more about the significant impact of developmental trauma on adult health and functioning. In the 1990’s Kaiser completed one of the largest studies on the impact of childhood experiences (both positive and negative) on the mental and physical health of individuals. The study found that the higher the number of adverse childhood experiences, the greater the likelihood of negative health outcomes. Many survivors of difficult and traumatic childhood events experienced greater rates of:
- Anxiety and depression
- Drug and alcohol use
- Further victimization, including sexual and domestic violence
- Suicidal thoughts and actions
- Variety of physical health problems, including chronic pain and illness
If you’d like to know your ACE score you can take the test here.
Symptoms of Complex PTSD & Developmental Trauma
When we work with men, women, and young adults in our practice we see significant consequences of past abuse and neglect. We help clients address the following symptoms and manisfestations of past trauma:
Anxiety and vigilance
Due to past experiences of parental chaos or instability, there is a tendency to view the world as a dangerous place. This leads people to feel hypervigilant in different places and relationships, such as marriage or work. You might be aware of a startle reflex, social anxiety at parties, dread of underperforming at work, seemingly irrational fears of something bad happening, and/or a compulsive need to please others so they won’t abandon you.
Depression, worthlessness, and shame
Depression is an attack on the self that often arises from deep feelings of worthlessness and shame. You might have a harsh inner critic that berates you and makes you feel bad about your mistakes and past actions. Then, the more you might tell yourself that you’re a “bad person” the more depressed you are likely to feel. Depression pulls you into a black hole of low energy, lack of motivation and despair in which you might even consider suicide.
Feeling “nothing,” being “numb or checked out” or missing time
These are usually symptoms of what we refer to as dissociation. When humans experience trauma we have at our disposal fight and flight mechanisms. When those strategies are ineffective, such as experiencing abuse from a more powerful parent who the child also relies on for caregiving, the mind and body resort to the last available strategy: dissociation.
During a dissociative process all but essential brain functions go offline to ensure survival. This process explains why many survivors of abuse say they “don’t remember it happening,” or “it wasn’t that bad,” or “it feels like it happened to someone else.” In effect, those part traumatic experiences have become “warded off” in the mind because they were too painful to bear. As adults, these individuals are often prone to revictimization because they might automatically switch to a state that feels “frozen” or “checked out” which also means they’re not aware of their environment and lack the power to protect themselves. Additionally, men and women often report feeling like they’re “floating, lightheaded, or out of body.”
Dissociation occurs on a spectrum from absent mindedness and emotional detachment to more serious forgetting to the formation of multiple personalities, nowadays known as Dissociative Identity Disorder.
Unhealthy and dysfunctional relationships
If our early blueprint for relationships was painful, neglectful, or abusive, then that is the model we will internalize. If parents were abusive or neglectful you may expect the same treatment from others and unconsciously make choices that make this a reality. If you were expected to give up your needs to take care of others, then it is likely you will struggle with codependency and people pleasing in your adult life. If no one could be relied on to meet your needs and provide safety you may become very avoidant of intimacy and closeness, choosing instead to be “self sufficient” and “independent.” While this helps you avoid getting hurt, you also feel loneliness and isolation.
Substances, food, sex
While all the above can be used in healthy ways, they can often become compulsive coping strategies to manage feelings. One of the primary effects of childhood trauma is difficulty regulating your emotions: sadness, anger, and guilt of course, but also positive ones like joy and excitement.
If you were routinely subjected to difficult emotions and had no support for how to handle them, it is likely you’ll struggle with containing your feelings in your adult life. To manage stress, worry, or upset feelings you may develop a “characteristic coping style” of having a few drinks, indulging in too much food, or other habitual activity. This can help soothe your feelings in the short term, but in the long term leads to an unhealthy reliance on said activity. There are times you’ll want to stop or cut down on your consumption but you may feel unable to do so. This often creates a cycle of shame and using.
Chronic pain, aches, or unexplained medical conditions
Some of the most groundbreaking research on trauma has shown us that past traumatic experiences get stored in the body in the form of pain and other ailments. If you’ve been struggling with physical pain or illness for which a medical cause cannot be found, it’s likely your body is expressing your psychological distress. This often happens because survivors may not fully remember what happened, or may not have the words to describe their feelings. Starting to express the narrative of what happened to you and put words to emotions can help alleviate pain and symptoms.
Aggression and destructiveness
Being raised by an angry and/or violent parent causes the child to internalize rage in a process we refer to as “identification with the aggressor.” Consequently in adult life it’s not uncommon that that aggression gets directed outward, towards others, or inward towards the self. If you find yourself being angry, volatile and easily triggered by others you have trouble containing your aggressive and destructive impulses. If you are habitually self-loathing or self-harming it could be a way you learned to express your anger in a “safe” way, but you hurt yourself in the process. Aggression is an innate biological drive. When it’s overactive we work together to help you contain it and express it in more appropriate ways.
In our experience, this is one of the most pervasive effects of a traumatic upbringing. When children are punished or neglected they almost always blame themselves in order to preserve the view of their parent or caregiver as “good,” which is necessary for survival. Consequently, they tell themselves they’re “bad.” This happens at a very unconscious level and becomes encoded as a “truth” about the self. No matter how many accomplishments you’ve achieved, how nice and kind you try to be, etc etc, there’s an unshakeable view of yourself as “fundamentally bad.” As a result you feel a lot of self-loathing and self-hatred.
Low self-worth can lead to occasional or chronic suicidality. You may fantasize about ending it all and killing yourself. Or there may be a longstanding wish that you had never been born or had died as a child.
There are times when the consequences of childhood abuse and neglect become fixed as rigid structures to the extent that they are considered a personality disorder.
The effects of abuse and neglect we’ve described are adaptations to the kind of environment you experienced growing up. You may not understand why you do what you do, or why you feel a certain way, yet there are always good reasons. A big part of the work of therapy is untangling various parts of you so we can understand what purpose different feelings and behaviors serve. The process of developing your self-awareness allows you to change, heal, and live a more full and meaningful life.
Austin Trauma Therapy
Now that you know more about what you’re struggling with, we can tell you about who we are. We are Katrina Taylor and Ashleigh Edelstein, licensed Austin therapists. We both became therapists as a result of our own difficult life experiences, and subsequent therapy. We get it. And we want to help.
We know it’s important to feel better so we help with reducing the troubling symptoms we’ve described. We also know real and lasting change comes from deep work on understanding yourself. So we don’t see therapy as a quick fix, or something we’re gonna do to you. Instead, we both see this work as a rich and rewarding journey we go on together. We’ve both kind, compassionate, and collaborative people. Of course we’re also different, and differ in our approaches to helping you.
In general, Ashleigh works with dysfunctional family-of-origin dynamics while Katrina works with more severe trauma, dissociation, anger, and personality disorders. Please feel free to read more about how Katrina and Ashleigh approach therapy and reach out to get started.