How Old You Were When You Experienced Trauma Matters – Here’s Why
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Trauma knocks us down and changes our lives forever. Sexual assault, violence, neglect, emotional abuse – these experiences steal our sense of safety, flood our bodies with stress, and can take years to recover from whether we’re 5 or 55.
There is something about childhood trauma, though, that not only shapes our mental health but our sense of who we are.
There are no perfect answers to explain why trauma, even exposure to the same trauma, affects some people differently than others. According to the American Psychological Association, factors like family support, ongoing life stressors, prior trauma exposure, and psychiatric comorbidities all impact our ability to recover after a traumatic event. When children experience trauma while their brains are still developing, they may have fewer protective factors — and therefore risk more life-lasting consequences. If you experienced trauma as a child, this could explain why it seems to leak into everything you do in ways you might still be discovering.
This is not to say experiencing trauma as an adult doesn’t have devastating, life-long consequences, or that your traumatic experience counts “less” if it happened later in life. But it is true that adults who experienced less childhood trauma often have stronger foundations to deal with the trauma adulthood throws their way.
If you’re an adult who feels like your childhood trauma is who you are (instead of something that happened to you) here are four reasons this might be the case.
Early Childhood Trauma Impacts Our Attachment Style
The first relationship we have is between us and our caregivers. For most people, this means our parents. When you’re new to the world and trying to figure out what the heck is going on (being a baby is confusing!) how your caregiver initially responds to your needs sets a framework for your future relationships. We’re talking about big questions, like: Am I lovable? Am I safe? Will someone meet my needs? Do I even deserve to have my needs met? If you’re neglected during these early years or if your primary caregiver isn’t safe, it changes your answers to these foundational questions.
This doesn’t mean someone with a secure attachment won’t be rocked by a breakup, struggle with grief, or take years or even decades to recover from a traumatic loss – but, if your needs were met clearly and regularly early in life, you may have an easier time navigating these relational changes. Although you may question it sometimes, overall you know: I am loved. I am worthy. I deserve to get my needs met.
If for some reason you didn’t develop a secure attachment, your core beliefs may be different. For example, if you have an anxious attachment style, you may find yourself constantly questioning your worth in a relationship and fearing abandonment. If this is you, you might believe: I am unworthy of love, nobody loves me, I have to constantly prove myself to get my needs met. If you’re someone with an avoidant attachment style, you might struggle to be vulnerable with a partner. If this is you, your narrative might sound like: I am the only one who can meet my needs, everyone will let me down, emotional connection and vulnerability are dangerous.
No one is doomed by their attachment style (I promise!), and it’s important to note attachment traumas aren’t always caused by abuse. The death of a caretaker, outside stressors, cultural factors, and other life circumstances can all impact how our attachment develops. Regardless, these early experiences can affect the quality of our relationships later on, which makes this type of early childhood trauma profound.
Early Childhood Trauma Impacts Our Brain Development
More than two-thirds of children will experience at least one traumatic event before the age of 16. Just like attachment trauma sets a framework for how we view relationships, early childhood trauma significantly impacts our brain development, rewiring our sense of safety, identity, and ability to regulate our emotions.
A video by BrainFacts.org does a great job explaining how trauma impacts a child’s developing brain. As the video explains, some stress during our childhood is normal and even welcomed. It’s how we learn to solve problems, tolerate uncomfortable emotions, and develop skills to deal with stress later on.
But if you were a child who was constantly under stress, perhaps because you lived in an abusive home, this likely disrupted the development of certain brain structures and actually increased your risk of developing stress-related diseases later in life. Specifically, our amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and anterior cingulate cortex – parts of our brain that help us sense danger, regulate emotions, and develop cognitive functions like empathy, impulse control, and decision-making – can all be impacted by childhood trauma.
Childhood Trauma Changes Our Internal Narratives
Even adults who’ve experienced trauma grapple with the why. Why would this happen to me? How could it have been avoided? What did I do wrong? For children who are still developing their ability to understand complex topics, this “why” is even more confusing – and part of what makes childhood trauma so insidious.
If you were a child when you experienced trauma, depending on where you were developmentally, it’s likely your brain didn’t have the ability to make sense of your traumatic experience. For example, if you experienced a traumatic event between the ages of 2 and 7, that’s when you’re still developing the ability to see things from the perspective of others – so you literally think the world revolves around you. That means after experiencing a trauma, you literally couldn’t create an explanation you weren’t at the center of, so you concluded it had to be your fault.
This self-blame, even if it’s subconscious, could be why childhood trauma survivors often struggle with their self-esteem and experience negative self-talk. Especially in cases of emotional abuse, the narrative of the abuser often becomes the internal narrative of the child, something many trauma survivors need to unlearn in adulthood. While adults who experience emotional abuse aren’t immune to its effects, they might have a strong enough positive, internal narrative to understand the behavior has more to do with the other person, and that the blame doesn’t fall on them.
Many People Who Experience Childhood Trauma Are Retraumatized
Perhaps the saddest fact about childhood trauma is this already vulnerable population is more at-risk of being retraumatized. This doesn’t happen to everyone. Some children may experience a “one-off” trauma, like getting into a car crash or the tragic death of a loved one. These traumatic events are devastating and, of course, can leave life-long impacts, but with the right support, most children can return to their previous levels of functioning and even develop resiliency skills in the process.
For other children, the conditions that initially exposed them to trauma are often a breeding ground for more trauma exposure. For example, a teenager who spends most of his time outside the home to avoid an abusive parent may find himself more at-risk of violence on the streets. If a parent who neglects their child doesn’t teach them about boundaries with strangers, this child is now more at-risk of being revictimized by other adults.
These repetitive traumas (and the chronic stress that comes with them) put young people more at risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or even complex PTSD. The more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) you have, the more likely you are to experience negative outcomes.
Childhood Trauma Is Not Who You Are
For those still navigating a childhood trauma recovery journey, I hope that understanding why childhood trauma sticks to us the way it does increases the compassion you have for yourself. When you look back at yourself as a child – a child whose brain was still developing, whose environment led to more trauma, and who developed an attachment style they didn’t choose – please remember it was not your fault, and as an adult, you deserve all the support and love you need to heal.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash