Updated: Apr 16
It’s normal to want to put bad experiences behind you. Many people hear, “That’s in the past. Just move on.” But those who’ve had difficult childhoods know that’s easier said than done. Here’s a look at how childhood trauma can impact adults, and what can help.
As children, we’re dependent on adults. They must meet our needs, or teach us how to effectively meet them on our own. Kids need to feel accepted, safe, and secure that their caretakers will be there for them.
No parent is perfect, so it’s common for some of these needs to go unmet. When significant needs go unmet on an ongoing basis, it may be considered emotional neglect. And in some situations, children may have been physically, emotionally, or sexually abused.
Children, especially at a younger age, are still developing mentally and physically. Core belief systems, especially about the self, are believed to be largely set in by age five.
Children who regularly didn’t get needs met, or were abused, may develop certain negative belief systems. They may conclude that those they love will hurt them, or that they will be emotionally deprived forever.
In some cases, children may experience trauma at an older age. For example, death of a family member, sexual assault or rape, or abandonment by a parent all can have devastating effects.
As we age, we don’t always realize how these experiences can continue to impact us. This could happen on a conscious or subconscious level.
Many people are able to function quite well until they become close to others as adults. When more complex relationships develop, it can trigger childhood experiences.
This is most apparent in intimate relationships. Many people are drawn to partners, or attract partners, somewhat like their parents. This is through no fault of their own--it’s a common and normal human occurrence.)
In other cases, partners may be nothing like those who’ve hurt us. There may be no evidence of danger. Yet, we continue to fear that they might harm or abandon us.
In his book Complex PTSD, from Surviving to Thriving, Pete Walker discusses how childhood traumas can continue to haunt adults. While complex PTSD is not yet a formal diagnosis, many therapists use it to describe such childhood experiences.
Walker describes emotional flashbacks, which are one possible symptom of complex PTSD. These flashbacks are sometimes triggered during arguments or perceived (or real) abandonment by a partner or other loved one.
Someone having an emotional flashback may feel much like a child again. They may have a hard time talking, may dissociate, or cry uncontrollably. Their reaction may seem out of sync with whatever’s going on in the moment. That’s because it’s also a reaction to trauma that happened years ago.
Walker describes it further in the book: “A sense of feeling small, young, fragile, powerless and helpless is also commonly experienced in an emotional flashback, and all the symptoms are typically overlaid with humiliating and crushing toxic shame.”
Negative Self Beliefs
Remember those negative belief systems that children develop when needs aren’t met? Some people describe these as schemas. Jeff Young, the developer of schema therapy, identified multiple types of schemas that may impact us.
Two examples that many people are familiar with include a chronic expectation of failure, or a consistent fear of abandonment. Even when someone is clearly not experiencing these things, they may still feel as if they are.
For example, has anyone ever told you that you did a great job at something, but you thought they were just flattering you? Or have you known someone who was great at something, but always felt they should have done better?
These types of belief systems typically during childhood. It may have been due to a series of experiences, or a particular episode or trauma that occurred.
Beyond Family Life
Sometimes people experience what therapists call “small t” traumas. These are traumas that may not seem severe, but are long-lasting. For example, a childhood friend may have stopped hanging out with you for no apparent reason. Or, a series of bosses may have betrayed your trust.
While these aren’t necessarily labeled as major life events, they are long-lasting. Many people may think about them for years, or even decades, after they happened.
Sometimes, a feeling of shame or guilt was developed during such moments. Or, if the event happened as an adult, it may have triggered a similar childhood experience. These small t traumas can continue to complicate adult life. They could contribute to depression, anxiety, or several other mental struggles.
EMDR for Childhood Trauma
So, what can you do about it if you’re experiencing the impact of childhood trauma as an adult? Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is uniquely designed to address these childhood traumas.
Your therapist will help you revisit small t or big T traumas, and support you in healing your related thoughts, emotions, and physical experiences. Sometimes, smaller traumas can feel better within one session. At other times, working through several traumas will help you feel relief.
Most people experience some type of trauma during their childhoods, which continue to affect them as adults. Growing up isn’t easy. Even the best of parents miss things. And sadly, many children suffer severe trauma. Fortunately, you can heal from even the most difficult experiences. We’re here to support you. Contact us today to learn how we can help.
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Author: Catalyss Counseling