Childhood trauma can be experienced in a number of ways. From physical and emotional abuse to neglect or witnessing a particularly distressing event, our childhood experiences shape who we become as adults as well as how we perceive ourselves and others. Everything that happens to us as children can have long-term effects on the type of life we lead or choose for ourselves.
It is important to realize that not all impactful and difficult experiences are necessarily traumatic. Difficult experiences happen to people all the time; the difference between these negative experiences and traumatic events is the impact they have on our psyches and how we cope with them.
The Effects of Childhood Trauma
Traumatic events typically include the following:
- Sexual, emotional, physical, or verbal abuse
- Emotional and physical neglect
- The death of a loved one
- Surviving a natural disaster or accident
All of these events affect everyone differently. There’s no universal coping strategy people use to deal with these situations. Oftentimes, people suppress emotions and memories associated with traumatic events as a form of self-protection. Vulnerability and emotional expression is often viewed as a sign of weakness and discouraged in our society and this leads people to hide their true feelings.
Trauma Survivors View Themselves as Lifelong Victims
As children, we don’t necessarily have control over our circumstances. We rely on others—namely trusted adults—to care for and protect us. When traumatic events take place, that out-of-control feeling is intensified and usually carried over into adulthood. It is important to keep reminding yourself that you’re in control of your life now and you have the power to steer your life in any direction you want.
Developing a False Sense of Self
Many children develop a false sense of self when they’re feeling pressured by their parents to act or be a certain way and they end up changing their entire personality just to meet their parents’ expectations. This can lead to a lot of internalized self-loathing in adulthood because you might feel as if you’re living the life your parents wanted for you instead of the life you wanted for yourself. In a way, you lose sight of who you are and create a false version of yourself that you present to the world.
Being Forced to Grow Up Too Fast
Children who experience a traumatic event in their lives are often forced to grow up too fast and lose their innocence at an early age. They mature a lot sooner than their peers because they have to suddenly deal with adult situations that are usually beyond their understanding and that they might not be emotionally equipped to handle. As adults, they sometimes develop a cynical outlook on life and this can damage their sense of self as well as their ability to form healthy, trusting relationships with others.
Passivity stems from feelings of abandonment as a child. Whether you were physically abandoned or emotionally neglected by your parents or guardians, the need to shield yourself from the world can manifest itself well into adulthood. Children who were adopted or grew up in the foster care system are more likely to feel this way. As a form of self-protection, they suppress their emotions and end up losing themselves in the process. The idea is that if they don’t open themselves up to people, then they can’t get hurt. The caveat is that they also end up missing out on a lot of wonderful life experiences and relationships due to such self-protection.
Becoming Passive Aggressive
Passive aggressiveness is a form of expressing suppressed anger. People are usually taught that anger is a bad or negative emotion, but anger is a perfectly natural emotion just like happiness or sadness, and we all feel it from time to time. How you express your anger or how you think you should express your anger depends largely on your upbringing. If you were brought up in a household that taught you anger is a shameful emotion, then you might be inclined to continue suppressing it as an adult. Some children are consistently exposed to violent bursts of anger and grow up associating violence with anger. Learning to accept and express your anger while also recognizing that it doesn’t have to be associated with violence or shame can help you find more effective ways of handling it as an adult.
Having low self-esteem or a negative perception of yourself is a key indicator that you may have experienced some form of childhood trauma. Whether it was bullying at school or at home, these experiences have a tendency to consciously or unconsciously shape how we perceive ourselves, which in turn impacts our relationships with other people. Even experiences that are deemed as normal life events such as the death of a loved one can be a source of trauma for some people.
When children who go through trauma—especially at the hands of someone they’re supposed to be able to trust—it can lead to impactful attachment difficulties later in life. They might find it difficult to form loving and trusting relationships with themselves and others because they feel a constant sense of betrayal or detachment from others. Social situations like parties, gatherings, or even dates might make them feel uneasy and they may avoid such experiences altogether.
Coping with Childhood Trauma in Adulthood
Examine Your Childhood Memories
People who experience childhood trauma tend to subconsciously suppress their painful memories. Exploring childhood experiences can bring these memories back to the forefront of your conscious mind and help you understand and face them directly.
Re-Interpret Your Past and Gain Closure
Many adults don’t even realize that they endured a traumatic experience until they re-examine their past later in life. Taking this step and understanding everything that happened to you as a child (therapeutically) can help you get the closure you need to move on with your life.
Consult a Qualified Childhood Trauma Therapist
If you think you may have gone through a traumatic experience as a child, then it’s important to find healthy coping strategies. Your life isn’t the summation of your past experiences.