Childhood trauma is often overlooked, greatly misunderstood and one of the most damaging things that can happen to a child. The effects will last a lifetime.
This is the issue that I want to bring up today. I believe this view needs to change in society. Not only for children now but for those of us that were children when we were affected by trauma. I believe that understanding this interrupted brain growth process will help us all be more compassionate to others and most importantly to ourselves.
One of the most maddening things I hear is that I was was too young to really remember the traumas that I experienced as an infant and toddler, therefore I should be fine. While on one hand, this is true. I can not accurately recall the exact details of the abuse, this view is still completely and utterly wrong, in fact it is the complete opposite. This tree is a great graphic to help me explain what I mean.
The roots represent the prenatal stage of growth.
Where the tree touches the ground is birth.
The trunk is infancy and early childhood.
The lower branches are childhood.
The upper branches are your teen years.
Adulthood is at the top branches.
If trauma occurs at any stage, the rest of the tree’s growth (which represents your forming brain) beyond that point is negatively affected. The older you are, the more life experiences and knowledge you have to cope and the brain is not actively forming as quickly. (ie. Abusing a toddler affects the entire tree from the trunk up. You end up with a tree build on a very insecure base. If the abuse happens as an adult, you have a good base and strong branches so you have some ability to cope better than a child would.)
Side note: I said cope “better”, not easier. ❤
Childhood trauma is often complex and can be catastrophic, leaving a lifetime of struggles in almost all facets of life. This is significantly true of trauma exposure during the prenatal and infancy stages (roots and trunk) when the brain is at its most critical and active phases of development. The younger a person is when exposed to trauma, the higher their risk of developing trauma related disorders including learning disorders, developmental disorders, cognitive deficits, attention issues, attachment disorders, and so much more.
Prenatal trauma is hard to understand so I have found some examples of how trauma can happen even while in the womb.
- a toxic or unwelcoming womb
- divorce or a bereaved parent
- a considered or attempted abortion
- being unwanted
- adoption (deep abandonment)
- a lack of resources
- twin loss
- drugs, alcohol and nicotine taken during pregnancy
- violence and other ongoing stresses.
A developing brain needs a healthy chemistry to develop properly. A brain that is developing while flooded with trauma induced chemicals (such as cortisol and adrenaline) fails to form healthy, strong connections.
Trauma at this stage will affect the formation of the tree (your brain) at the roots. Every single part of that tree with be affected.
Birth trauma examples:
- life/death situations
- being born unusually quickly
- a very long labor
- the cord around the neck or getting stuck
- being unwanted
I want to point out that these are examples of birth trauma but it is more about how these events were handled. Having a c-section that was planned will not be a trauma but a mother far in to her labour when an emergency arises and she is whisked off to have an emergency c-section can be if she does not have enough support through this process.
This trauma is like taking the new roots and putting them in unhealthy soil.
There are numerous ways a young child can be affected by trauma. Several examples include:
- sexual or physical abuse
- natural disaster (hurricane, earthquake, flood)
- car or plane crashes
- witnessing a death, murder or suicide
- severe neglect
- violence in the home
This trauma is usually where some memory comes in to play. It is better understood by society how these events can be traumatic but often people will assume that the child is too young to remember. This is absolutely incorrect. The child may not recall details (who, what, when, where, why) but they will forever feel the trauma within their bodies and their minds even if they can not accurately place exactly what happened to them. Details are not needed to have proof of abuse.
I think abuse of teens and adults is more easily understood so I will skip on to the effects of trauma keeping in mind that the earlier the trauma began, the shakier the tree. Abuse of an adult may produce any of these symptoms but the treatment is based on a firmer base which can make it easier to treat or deal with. Having support around you is also incredibly important. An adult woman who is is violated can have no support or lots of support. This usually affects the outcome and persistent symptoms greatly.
Symptoms of trauma can include:
- Anxiety, terror
- Withdrawing from others
- Constantly being alert
- Re-enactment of situation with various objects
- Difficulty sleeping
- Lack of energy
- Inability to concentrate
- Poor self-image
- Bedwetting (not only a childhood thing)
- Guilty feelings
- Showing signs of obsessive or compulsive behaviors
- Panic attacks
- Recurrent nightmares, flashbacks
- Avoidance of situations similar to the traumatic event
- Pain with or without an obvious cause
- Inability to give or receive proper love and affection
- Trust issues that vary from wariness to an absolute disbelief in anyone or anything
Sadly the list can be much longer but I felt those were the major touching points.
In the end, I hope this blog helps you be a bit more compassionate with yourself and/or with others who have been traumatized. Quite often trauma can stunt/slow/stop a persons emotional maturity at the point where the trauma took place. You might be 35-45-55-65+but trauma can leave you emotionally much younger. One therapist told me that I am about 400 years old intellectually but about 4 emotionally. I am still just learning the ropes. I agree and I do not see this as a putdown. With my background, it is great that I’ve reached 4.
With good therapy, a supportive environment, medications or supplements as needed and a boatload of self compassion, we can continue to find ways to build a more supportive tree. I like to picture building a beautiful stone wall around mine. Stone by stone, it gets taller and stronger. Yours can too.
My tree had DID so the rock wall takes a little longer to encompass my tree but it’s a process/project worth working for.