What does childhood trauma mean?
Childhood trauma refers to events in which a child is psychologically and emotionally overwhelmed by what they experience.
If the child is exposed to multiple traumatic events, this is referred to as complex trauma.
If in childhood you were exposed to traumatising experiences, particularly those that didn’t get sufficient attention at the time, then it is possible that they will still have an impact upon your adult life.
- For many people, the reason we suffer mental health problems can be traced back to childhood trauma.
- A complicated bereavement
- Parents’ divorce
- Witnessing domestic violence
- Sexual abuse
It is often the case that the childhood traumas we experienced were so overwhelming and impossible to process that we shut them out of our minds. Often, we have had to go through the trauma without any help being available. We just had to adapt and try to live as best we can.
As a consequence, over time we can lose sight of the way events have affected us. We try to ignore the traumatic events. Instead we find ourselves growing up to adulthood with problems and a lack of a sense of understanding about what those problems properly relate to.
When parents ignore childhood trauma
There is a tendency for parents to try to close down the trauma the child has lived through. Because the parent doesn’t know what to say, they sometimes try to ignore the subject.
It’s a bit like turning off a bad news story on the television and thinking the problem has gone away.
Traumatic experience in childhood fundamentally interferes with how our personalities develop. Childhood trauma breaks up our natural spontaneous ways of being and relating to others.
Childhood trauma and the false self
Instead of our personality developing along natural lines, we develop, as it were, a false self behind which our true self remains hidden. This false self is like a mask we put on for the world to see. Winnicott and Jung both worked on their understanding of the impact of the false self, or persona.
Traumatic events make us feel unsafe. We can no longer trust our environments and our carers. Part of our authentic true self takes refuge within us, while the false self is left to mediate with the outside world.
- It can be hard to keep track of the way the false self functions, but it will likely have a negative impact on your capacity to develop good mental health as an adult.
Psychotherapy, childhood trauma and adult mental health
Psychotherapy works by attempting to find out more about what has happened to you.
In psychotherapy we try to carefully create a therapeutic environment in which you start to feel safe enough to allow your false self to stand down and your true self to emerge.
Because it becomes possible to do this with your psychotherapist, to rebuild a sense of trust that was lost in childhood, it may then become possible to start to reveal your true self with other people.
Growing up in an emotionally unpredictable home
If you grew up in an emotionally unpredictable and unstable environment, your emotional development may have suffered. Traumatic experiences may be buried very deep. You may have put them out of your mind. When this happens, they can remain in the background exerting a negative and destructive effect upon your adult life without you knowing what the reason for this is.
You may have problems forming and developing relationships and developing your creativity.
Getting at the causes of the problems so you can change and improve your range of options now and so improve your adult mental health, means being able to think about the way your life has developed from childhood.
Childhood trauma and adult mental health; getting help
If you go to your GP looking for help with a mental health issue now, you are more likely to be steered towards treatments that look at your presenting problem, ie., your problem with a particular behaviour or issue, than you are likely to be offered treatment that looks at underlying issues behind your problems.
The mainstream tendency now within mental health is to think of the symptoms of mental health issues rather than their underlying causes. This can make it harder to connect with any underlying and unresolved childhood issues.
When this happens we tend to focus upon a particular problem or symptom, perhaps relating to:
- Sleep problems
- Stomach issues
- Problems with anger
- Obsessional behaviour
- Stress etc.,
Without addressing the underlying histories and causes of our problems.
Short-term treatments tend to be offered, usually; a version of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, or Mindfulness based therapy, sometimes medication will be prescribed as well.
This may give you some temporary relief. You may feel better for speaking with your GP. You may become better at managing certain symptoms, but it is unlikely to improve your mental health in the longer term.
Mental health has a context
The critical issue is being able to understand more about your own context – your history. This includes how childhood traumas may have impacted you. If you have experienced childhood trauma that will be part of the context of your adult mental health.
It is not too late to address childhood traumas now
Approaching neglected childhood traumas in adulthood is serious and sensitive work, it may take time, but it can done.
It may take longer trying to address the underlying issues that are causing you to have problems with your adult mental health now, but doing so may give you a realistic chance of making a significant and long term improvement.
How can Counselling Buckinghamshire help?
I have a depth of experience of working with people who are trying to identify childhood traumas that may be interfering with developing better adult mental health.
Working with Counselling Buckinghamshire may provide you with an opportunity to change the way old emotional issues and childhood traumas are hindering your adult mental health.
Contact me for a free telephone consultation to discuss how Counselling Buckinghamshire might be able to help you.