I was recently asked the question, “How the heck does childhood trauma impact adult relationships?” Anyone who works with individuals struggling with any form of trauma understands there are many layers involved in answering this question. However, I will attempt to offer some insight on the long-term effects of childhood trauma.
Trauma is defined as an injury to the brain that occurs because of a distressing event. A traumatic event can be a single event or repeated experiences. Most importantly, trauma interrupts the plot of our lives. In a split second, trauma changes everything. It alters the victim’s world view. A victim of gun violence does not just hear firecrackers he or she may hear sounds of gunshots. A rape victim does not just see a jogger, she sees a possible perpetrator.
Every new encounter or event has the potential to be contaminated by the past.
Common symptoms of trauma include shock, denial, difficulty concentrating, feeling disconnected or numb, hypervigilance, fear, and shame.
Responses to trauma include fight, flight or freeze, loss of sense of safety, loss of trust, assumptions about the world become shattered, difficulty in relationships, and developmental tasks become interrupted.
Again, how does this connect to childhood trauma?
There are three things that come to mind when thinking of childhood trauma:
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs): Serious childhood traumas that can harm a child’s brain, prevent a child from learning, playing in a healthy way with other children and result in long term health and social problems (cardiovascular problems, depression, suicide attempts, alcohol abuse, risk for intimate partner violence education problems).
Attachment: There are three major types of bonding attachments that impact how we tolerate intimacy and emotional closeness, conflict, and communication
· Secure: Low on avoidance, low on anxiety. Comfortable with intimacy, not worried about rejection. “It is easy for me to get close to others.”
· Avoidant: High on avoidance, low on anxiety. Uncomfortable with closeness and values independence and freedom. “I find it difficult to trust and depend on others.”
· Anxious: Low on avoidance, high on anxiety. Crave closeness and intimacy, very insecure about the relationship. “I want to be extremely emotionally close to others, but others are reluctant to get as close as I would like.
Brain Development: When a child suffers childhood trauma, there are four main areas of the brain that are impacted. These include the hippocampus, amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and the brain stem.
Major functions include:
Hippocampus: Memories, emotions, and learning.
Amygdala: Eating, drinking and sexual behaviors.
Prefrontal cortex: Reasoning, logic, empathy, insight, emotion regulation, judgment, planning, concentration and managing aggression and impulsive behaviors.
Brain stem: Vision, hearing, eye movement and body movement.
Tying it all together: The primary task during the first years of a child’s life are safety and security provided by an emotionally and psychologically attuned caregiver. Securely attached children learn to regulate their emotions, develop a healthy sense of self, confidence, experience relationships and the world as safe and secure which promotes healthy brain development.
Children who have experienced disrupted attachment(s) may operate in a constant state of survival as they anticipate the next real or perceived threat. These behaviors may manifest in trauma responses to their environments such as fight flight or freeze, low self-esteem, inability to develop and maintain friendships, codependency in relationships, difficulty with trust, intimacy and affection, lack empathy, compassion and remorse. These behaviors, which are often trauma responses to real or perceived unsafe environments, often manifest in adult relationships when childhood traumas are unresolved.
There is hope! The brain has elasticity and can be rewired through psychotherapy. There are many specialized evidenced based approaches to help children and adults to work through their trauma.
Click here for a list of therapists
Click here for a list of Black therapists
Just a reminder, pre-Covid-19, nearly 90% of the population experienced one or more traumatic events. Let’s approach each person with the understanding that it is possible they may have experienced one or more traumatic events throughout their lifetime which may be impacting their current health behaviors, coping strategies in ways we cannot see.
Instead of asking “What’s wrong with you?” Begin to ask, “What happened to you?” and “Who was there for you?”
Remember, EVERYONE has a story.
I hope this overview of trauma provided some insight on the impact of childhood traumas on adult relationships. If you are an employer or employee of an organization whose staff would benefit from more in depth trauma informed/trauma sensitive training, click here to learn more.
~End the pain, begin the healing
To Your Health and Prosperity,