On a Childhood Lost to TraumaDec 10, 2022
Trauma is about what happened.
It's also about what didn't happen.
A lot is missed when your focus is on survival. This is of course true for adults and anyone who has experienced profound suffering.
What happens when your childhood is characterized by unstable or frightening caregiving relationships? What happens when you don't have enough food or shelter? What happens when you are bullied at school? What happens if you experience regular daily injuries because you are within a marginalized group of people? What happens when you are exposed to sexual, emotional, verbal, or physical violence throughout your development?
A lot of bad things happen in these contexts. Of course.
And there is a lot that doesn't happen. Children who grow up in chaotic, dangerous, or neglectful households miss out on a lot. And there can be a lot to grieve as a result.
What doesn't happen might include:
The opportunity to feel loved
The opportunity to be connected
The opportunity to feel safe
The opportunity to learn
The opportunity to develop emotion regulation skills
The opportunity to be in a healthy relationship
The opportunity to trust
The opportunity to create nostalgic memories
The opportunity to enjoy the magic of childhood
Will childhood trauma affect adulthood? Absolutely.
The losses from the past can continue into adulthood. Trauma shifts our futures in a lot of ways. There is a lot to grieve that is secondary to what did happen.
A common example of how childhood trauma influences adults is with addiction.
Why does childhood trauma lead to addiction, sometimes? Because substances can initially help regulation overwhelming emotions and numb the pain of the past. Eventually, they stop working and addiction takes on a life of its own. This is another example of how one’s future trajectory can be influenced by the past.
There are other examples, such as how childhood trauma affects health throughout the lifespan. The ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study was a breakthrough in that it clarified what a lot of us in the field already knew; childhood trauma has serious health consequences in adulthood. Here is an article that talks about the study as well as actionable steps towards prevention.
If you are curious how you score on the ACES to assess your own level of exposure to trauma along with your risk for associated health concerns, here is a link to an article where you can take the quiz. It also explains what the ACES does and does not mean.
Recognizing and validating what was lost is a basis for movement, growth, and recovery. For those of us in supportive roles, it can be tempting to nudge those we are helping to recognize the good in their life or to gloss over the past. Sometimes, the past isn’t the issue, exactly.
Childhood trauma affects the way our brains and bodies work. Essentially, we become shaped by our environment throughout development, which is a necessary adaptation when you’re in the thick of it. The ways in which we are shaped as we develop continues to influence the way our life goes into adulthood. Not only do survivors of childhood trauma have to grieve what happened and adjust their way of being in the world, they must grieve all that they missed.
To complicate things further, it can take a minute even to recognize that the past was traumatic. You must reach safety before you can contrast it with what you had always known to be “normal.”
Recovery is not a straight line. The first thing that begins to unravel after finding safety is the realization of the severity of what happened. It’s a long and winding climb to feel better and shed the habits that trauma forced someone to take on for protection. I liken this work to emotional surgery. The old wounds must be re-opened to heal properly.
Healing takes a lot of work, time, and money, which means more time in adulthood is lost to the past. Normal developmental milestones like going to college or finding love can take a lot longer. Career and family choices can be thwarted by symptoms that represent history.
So, yes. Recovery from childhood trauma is a winding road. There are a lot of layers to grieve, and the hearts, minds and bodies of survivors need to be re-oriented to safety once it is discovered.
This isn’t meant to sound hopeless because it isn’t. Not even a little bit. Adult survivors of childhood trauma have a lot of tools in their back pockets that others did not even have to consider needing. Survivors know how to survive. And thrive.
What this is meant to do is to acknowledge and validate a layer of loss that often goes unnoticed. We can never replace what was lost. We can talk about it. Support each other through it. Recognize it. Identify it.
We just don’t want to ignore it.
Coaches, Therapists, Educators, Helpers. We can support those we serve through this process by making room for it.
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