Adults who experienced trauma in their childhoods often struggle to understand why they’re still troubled by those memories today. In this video I’ll be sharing 5 reasons why it makes sense to be haunted by traumatic memories years, or even decades later. Keep watching to find out.
Hi folks, I’m Will Bratt from Heart & Oak Therapy, supporting better, brighter lives.
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One of the most common questions I receive from adults who are struggling to heal from traumatic childhood experiences is, “Why can’t I just get over it?”
The scope of this question is huge, and there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. It feels incomplete to just say, “Because that was a traumatic experience, and that’s how human beings respond to those kinds of things”. A textbook, answer like this misses the nuance and humanity in the interest of tidiness and order.
In this video I draw out why adults are haunted by childhood trauma, with a special focus on meaning and context.
First, I think it’s important that we get on the same page in terms of what we mean by “trauma”.
“Trauma” is a word that can be used in many ways. People use it to refer to experiences that are challenging, scary, embarrassing, overwhelming, or shocking.
When it comes to the world of therapy, “trauma” generally refers to experiences that are emotionally overwhelming, profoundly distressing, and deeply upsetting. This can look like experiences of violence and abuse, brushes with death, moral injuries, deep humiliation, or horrific disasters.
No single experience is essentially or necessarily traumatic on its own. We can’t just say, “Being held hostage in a bank robbery is a traumatic experience”, or “If you’re assaulted by a stranger on the street, you will be traumatized”. Two people could survive a mugging or robbery side by side, and while both may agree that it was distressing, it could happen that only one of them walks away feeling traumatized. The meaning each person holds around the event is the key to whether or not they deem it traumatic.
So what is it about traumatic experiences in childhood that makes them especially hard to shake?
Because meaning is so crucial when it comes to whether or not we experience an event as traumatic, childhood is an especially vulnerable time in our lives. If you put yourself in your childhood shoes, you’ll remember that children are largely dependent on (and at the mercy of) grownups and adult systems. Not only that, the relationships we have are mostly very close and familial, holding very different and more significant meaning than a lot of the more superfluous relations we gain as we get older.
Now I’m going to share 5 hallmarks of childhood trauma that have a lot to do with why traumatic childhood experiences can trouble us well into adulthood.
1. The first is violence and abuse. A shortcoming of the word “trauma” is that it’s ambiguous and general. The reality is that childhood trauma usually consists of experience of interpersonal violence or abuse. These experiences are of a very different, far more personal nature than, say, a natural disaster or car crash – which can also be described as traumatic. As my mentors, Linda Coates and Allan Wade emphasize, violence is, by definition, deliberate. The fact that someone made the choice to do harm a child can, and should, be terribly upsetting.
2. The second reason is that traumatic childhood experiences are rarely isolated events. One way that the term “traumatic experience” can be misleading is that it can give the false impression that the experience was an isolated instance. While that can be true of some people’s traumatic childhood experiences, more often it’s violence, abuse, or mistreatment that takes place across time. When we reach adulthood, the trauma responses we have to our childhood memories are more often in relation to the conditions that perpetuated the suffering, as opposed to singular moments in time.
3. This brings us to the third hallmark of childhood trauma: Violations of social contracts. Abuse against children is typically carried out by people who should be in caring roles. Parents, foster parents, other family members, coaches, teachers, or clergy are socially sanctioned to provide safety and nurturance to children. Abuse is often perpetrated by those exploiting the privilege that comes with those positions. Going back to the issue of meaning, this can make abuse by these people all the more upsetting in the long term because it’s done by people who should have been especially trustworthy and safe.
4. The social responses a child receives when experiencing violence or abuse, or when seeking help are another factor that can have a lot to do with why someone might deem a childhood experience to be traumatic. Because children largely depend on adults for safety and protection, when it’s not provided, or when that safety is compromised further by an adult’s response, it can be profoundly distressing. This can look any number of ways, including when an adult knows a child is in danger and does nothing to make it stop, when an adult punishes a child for coming forward and seeking help, when an adult on the periphery facilitates the violence, or when a child comes forward and is disbelieved or shamed. Understandably, negative social responses like these can be just as upsetting or more than the initial abuse or mistreatment.
5. Finally, number 5 is the inability to make it stop. I firmly believe that whenever there is violence, there is resistance. Children are no exception to this – in fact they’re often the cleverest resisters and safety makers around. People of any age who experience violence or abuse know that offenders make efforts to supress resistance, which is why it usually flies under the radar, and can be mistaken for things other than what it is - such as “going along” with the abuse. Despite the presence and prevalence of children’s resistance, it is rarely strong enough to absolutely stop violence, abuse, or mistreatment from happening altogether. Being unable to stop bad things from happening can leave us feeling profound despair, which can haunt us well into adulthood.
Phrases like “unresolved childhood trauma” can feel unwieldy and overwhelming. When people throw phrases like these around, they basically just mean “hurts from the past that haven’t been made okay”. In some cases, “making things okay” is a really tall order, but it’s very unlikely that it’s an impossible feat.
A helpful place to start can be around meaning – the very thing that makes a traumatic experience what it is. Exploring and understanding the meaning you hold around childhood trauma can help expose tangible avenues to pursue healing. This is one way therapy can be especially helpful!
While traumatic childhood experiences can haunt us well into adulthood, they can also be taken care of in beautiful ways that honour our dignity and support us in growth and healing. So now I’d like to turn over to you, the Heart & Oak community. Are there other reasons I didn’t mention that might make it hard for adults to shake traumatic childhood experiences? Are there things that you know about that can help toward feeling at peace with childhood trauma. Make sure to let us know in the comment section!
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Take care until next time, and keep doing the things that help you live a better, brighter life!