Understanding Causes of Childhood Trauma: Breaking down a complex mental health issue (Part One of the Childhood Trauma Series)
This is a comprehensive guide to the causes of childhood trauma. In it, you’ll learn everything you need to know about what childhood trauma is and the various causes of it. Other related issues, such as the effects, treatment, and prevention will be covered later in this series of articles.
This topic is important because many adults continue to suffer due to childhood trauma. Some people believe that they have to suffer in silence as those around them may not understand how these experiences shape the sufferer’s perception of reality, thoughts, emotions, actions, and decisions in the present. Many people who experience childhood trauma blame themselves for the experience and/or tell themselves that the experience is “in the past” or that “others had it worse.”
Both of these situations make it hard for the sufferer and their family to get relief. This guide may be exactly what you need to better understand what is happening to you or someone close to you. Let’s start by identifying what childhood trauma is.
What Is Trauma?
First, let’s define what trauma is. The word trauma comes from the Greek language where it meant “wound.” The best way to understand trauma from a mental health perspective is that trauma is the emotional, mental, and physical damage left behind by an impactful experience. I say this to emphasize that trauma is the “wound” left behind by events and the person’s experience of the events, not the event itself. Read more from Gabor Mat, MD at Trauma – Dr. Gabor Maté (drgabormate.com)
This definition helps us to understand why one person may experience trauma because of an event, but other people, who experience the same event, may have no identifiable issues related to it. After all, not everyone who experiences a car accident will have the exact same physical injuries. Additionally, research suggests that only 26% of people who lived through wars (1989-2019) developed posttraumatic stress disorder as a result.
So now that we understand that trauma is the wound left behind by events. We can move on to understanding what childhood trauma could be. On its face, childhood trauma would seem to be wounds left behind events in childhood, but we will see that there is more to the story.
What Is Childhood Trauma?
Childhood trauma occurs when a child experiences an event which leaves behind mental and emotional wounds. These events can be noteworthy events like war and violence, but sometimes other events are experienced by a child as catastrophic due to the child not having a wide enough world view and lacking adequate guidance or support to help the child understand and contextualize the event.
For example, a child may experience a parental divorce as catastrophic in the sense that they believe that the world (as they have always known it) is coming to an end. Children under 10 often believe that the divorce occurred because of something they, the child, did or said. In healthy families, the parents or other adults guide the child through this and help them understand that the world is not actually coming to an end and that they are not to blame.
In other situations, the child may not receive adequate support to process the events and may retain mental and emotional wounds. An example of these kinds of wounds might be that the child internalizes a belief that “I am a bad person” or “It’s my fault.” These thoughts may be associated with intense feelings of guilt or shame. Associated behaviors might include taking blame for situations in which the person clearly has no fault or responsibility. Dr. Gabor Matreminds us that certain children do not experience trauma because bad things happen, but rather because those children had to deal with bad things alone.
Now that we understand how children’s misguided attempts to deal with difficult experiences on their own leads to trauma wounds, we can see how other events may result in this reaction as well. The wound gets worse or deeper if the event happens repeatedly. Here we can use the example of the child who is rarely or never given choices and who is not allowed to speak openly about their wants or needs to their parents. The child may internalize the thought “my needs don’t matter” or “I am incompetent.” They may feel intense fear, helplessness, or confusion. In adulthood, this may look like people-pleasing or working in a job far below their actual abilities. Alternatively, the child may begin to try to ignore their own needs and become so numb to those that, in adulthood, they experience depression, have difficulty experiencing joy, or frequently forget to eat or take care of basic needs. These thoughts seem true to the person who has childhood trauma wounds. We can say that these thoughts, feelings, and resulting behaviors are all part of the childhood trauma.
However, childhood trauma can have many manifestations, including almost any persistent negative thoughts that are not based in the adult’s current experience; feelings of guilt and shame that are not appropriate to the situation; and behaviors that do not align with other aspects of the adult person. Next, we’ll talk about other signs and symptoms of childhood trauma.
Signs and Symptoms of Childhood Trauma in Adults
Signs and symptoms of childhood trauma are many and varied. The effects of childhood trauma can extend into adulthood. Individuals who experienced trauma as children are at a higher risk for developing mental health issues like depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, and complex posttraumatic stress disorder. They may also struggle with self-esteem, have difficulty regulating their emotions, and engage in risky behaviors such as substance abuse or self-harm.
Adults with childhood trauma can exhibit some or many of these symptoms in any combination. We will discuss some of them here. There will more in-depth discussion of these in my next article in this Childhood Trauma Series. Some additional examples of symptoms adults experience following childhood trauma: Feeling overwhelmed by big emotions or emotional reactivity; intense anxiety even when no obvious reason for anxiety is present; difficulty relaxing; frequent mood swings; irritability; feeling emotionally numb or detached; chronic pain; difficulty sleeping; having nightmares; frequent dissociation; and flashbacks of negative experiences. So now that we have a better understanding of what childhood trauma is and how it impacts adults, let’s talk about the major known causes of childhood trauma.
Types of Childhood Experiences that may Cause Trauma
There has been a great deal of research into identifying the sources of childhood trauma. One of the most detailed studies identified 10 experiences which sometimes occur in childhood and that are considered to be harmful to a child’s well-being. That study called these situations Adverse Childhood Experiences. You can find a copy of the questionnaire used in this study here: Adverse Childhood Experience Questionnaire for Adults (acesaware.org).
These experiences fall into the categories of physical, emotional, and neglect. Specifically, they are neglect, parental separation, parental mental illness, parental substance use, witnessing domestic violence, having a household member go to jail, emotional/verbal abuse, physical abuse, lack of emotional closeness, and sexual abuse. We’ll talk more in the next section about what these adverse experiences are and how they impact children.
Neglect-related Causes of Childhood Trauma
Neglect can show up in the form of not having enough to eat, not having access to clean clothing or other basic needs, or just not having anyone to take care of the child. Poverty can sometimes result in trauma wounds when it means that needs are often not being met. This situation can put children and adults into a perpetual survival mode which makes them overly focused on survival and unable to connect emotionally with others the way would normally.
A child who is exposed to dangerous situations due to lack of supervision or who is left home alone when very little, can experience trauma from these experiences. Part of what is traumatic is that the presence of the parent helps the child feel safe. Without this, a child can feel unsafe and confused. Fear and confusion are emotions that often contribute to a situation feeling traumatic to almost anyone. Not receiving adequate and necessary medical care is also classified as neglect.
Separation of a child from a close caregiver can cause trauma in a child that lingers into adulthood. So many adults struggle with “abandonment issues” because of the death of parent when they were very young or separation from a parent for other reasons. Some of these reasons include abandonment, divorce of parents, and incarceration of a parent.
Emotional Causes of Childhood Trauma
Many people do not understand that emotional abuse is a real source of trauma and emotional pain in adults. People often say, “I had a good childhood; my parents always made sure we had food, clothes, and a roof over our heads.” They say this to indicate that there is no reason why they would have resentment or trauma from their childhoods if these needs were all met. However, children have many emotional needs as well that, if not met, can cause trauma.
Previously we covered emotional abuse, but let’s talk about what that is. Emotional abuse of a child is defined as having an adult or parent swear at you, insult you, or put you down. Separately identified by the ACES study as an adverse childhood experience was feeling a lack of closeness or lack of importance of the child within the nuclear family. This can be the result of generational family dynamics such as having a parent who has never told or conveyed the message to the child that they are loved. Children who are unable to determine of they are loved or cared about, grow into adults who may believe “I am unlovable” or ask the question “If my family didn’t love me, how could anyone else?”
Other emotional causes of trauma include having a parent with mental illness or parental substance use. One of the reasons that these can be causes of trauma in the child is that the parent may be unable to respond appropriately to the child’s emotional, physical, or social needs. For example, a parent with severe depression may be very irritable and snap at the child often or have difficulty showing patience towards the child. A parent with substance use issues may isolate themselves in a separate room or lose consciousness, leaving the child to fend for themselves for long periods of time.
Physical Causes of Childhood Trauma
These physical causes of childhood trauma tend to be more well known than others, but here they are: witnessing domestic violence, natural disasters, war, physical abuse, and sexual abuse. Natural disasters and war can be traumatic for anyone and children are no different. The severity and impact of the disaster on the child’s existence will be related to the intensity with which the trauma is felt. For example, a child who experienced a tornado that hit their own home and led to the family being homeless for a period of time is more likely to experience trauma as a result than a child who watched a video about a family losing it’s home to war.
Witnessing domestic violence of one parent against another parent, has been shown to be very damaging to children and to have lasting effects into adulthood and can shape a person’s perceptions of relationships, trust, and self-worth. Adults who witnessed domestic violence as children often carry a heavy emotional burden, struggling with feelings of fear, anxiety, and helplessness that linger into adulthood. These individuals may face challenges in establishing healthy boundaries and communication patterns, which can then affect their ability to form and maintain intimate relationships. Additionally, the trauma of witnessing domestic violence can contribute to a heightened risk of developing depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Most people know what sexual abuse is and that it is harmful to children, but many people are resistant to describe their own experiences as sexual abuse due to difficulty coping with the idea. Sexual abuse is harmful because it is something done to the child that the child has no understanding of and therefore cannot consent to. Sexual abuse situations are those where the child is object of an adult’s sexual gratification.
Physical abuse is a term that everyone has heard, but many do not agree on what it means. In some cultures, people define certain types of aggressive physical contact of a parent with a child as normal punishment, but studies show that many types of aggressive physical contact by a parent towards a child can cause increased incidence of depression, anxiety, and low-self esteem as well as difficulty coping with conflict as an adult. The ACEs study defined physical abuse as a child being hit, beaten, kicked, or physically hurt by an adult in any way.
In conclusion, childhood trauma is a deeply complex issue with multifaceted causes and far-reaching consequences. It can stem from a variety of sources which we have covered here. The effects of childhood trauma can persist well into adulthood, impacting various aspects of an individual’s life, such as relationships, mental health, and overall well-being. Recognizing and understanding the causes of childhood trauma is crucial for providing appropriate support and interventions to those who have experienced such adversity. We can begin to heal childhood trauma in adults by identifying the sources, promoting trauma-informed care, and creating safe and nurturing environments. With this approach, we can strive to break the cycle of childhood trauma and foster resilience and healing in future generations. It is only through a compassionate approach that we can truly begin to heal and recover from childhood trauma wounds and break free from the debilitating effects of trauma.
If you are suffering from childhood trauma and live in Nashville area, you can schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation call with me to see if we might be a good fit to heal your trauma together at Psychotherapy Services | Inward & Onward Therapy (inwardonwardtherapy.com)