Wednesday, December 22, 2010

What is Childhood Trauma?

I have always viewed my childhood as 'traumatic' ... not just as a memory but even when the situations where actually happening to me as a young child. I always knew that what was happening wasn't normal, that I was in survival mode, and that I would have some issues to deal with when all the dust settled. I distinctively remember at 12 years old upon the moment of calling the police on my parents for a 'domestic disturbance' (they were physically fighting each other at the front door) that I was thinking, "Deep-six-ing everything in order to get past the moment will result in something coming out later." I could feel in the pit of my stomach, in the depth of my being, that I was getting eaten up by the stress, the drama, and the trauma. I knew that brushing it all aside and moving forward without truly addressing what happened would later haunt my brother and me.

So, for years, I went about life during my parents' long, drawn-out, and viscous divorce which encompassed custody battles, possession wars, and using us kids as pawns (Parental Alienation Syndrome). My parents remarried very shortly (within a year) after the divorce to 'ready made' families, so my brother and I were thrust into these 'ready made' families without having comprehended or adjusted to my parents actually being separated and divorced. The 'ready made' families immediately had riffs, battles, and conflicts, making life even more strained and stressed.

Although my mother will deny that our up-bringing has any effect on our adult life (read Blaming Parents for Our Past), nearly every researcher agrees that early childhood traumas lie at the root of most long-term depression & anxiety, and many emotional and psychological illnesses. Severe traumas can even alter the very chemistry and physiology of the brain itself. I have continually stated that I feel as if my brother's life as a dysfunctional adult is part-and-parcel of his upbringing. My mother and Dad both think that he is solely responsible for his mental state, lack of ability to manage his life, and his depression, lack of motivation, & more.

I wasn't left unscarred from my childhood either. I have battled insomnia during peak times of childhood trauma. I have battled anxiety through out my life, waiting for the next bomb to explode in my family. I have sought acceptance and attention from my parents that I will never achieve in receiving. I have searched, researched, dug, and sought understanding of my past, with which my parents have never assisted (my mother is irrational when speaking of the past, and my Dad 'doesn't remember' because he 'doesn't want to', which neither helps when trying to gain peace with the past).

So what exactly constitutes childhood trauma? Did I actually experience childhood trauma? A seminal 1992 American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) report defines childhood abuse as "a repeated pattern of damaging interactions between parent(s) [or, presumably, other significant adults] and child that becomes typical of the relationship." In addition to physical, sexual and verbal abuse, this can include anything that causes the child to feel worthless, unlovable, insecure, and even endangered, or as if his only value lies in meeting someone else's needs.

Examples cited in the report include:
  • "belittling, degrading or ridiculing a child; making him or her feel unsafe [including threat of abandonment]; failing to express affection, caring and love; neglecting mental health, medical or educational needs."
  • The AAP also includes parental divorce in the list of potentially harmful events which can traumatize a child.
  • Moving home frequently is traumatic for a child (it has been linked to suicide in older children)
  • Disruptive home life, including having to adapt to a parent's remarriage and being part of a new blended family (perhaps several in the course of childhood).

Given the information above, my brother and I indeed experienced childhood trauma, namely (1) the repeated pattern of damaging interactions with my parents, (2) parental divorce, and (3) 'disruptive home life' with having to adapt to a parent's remarriage and being part of a new blended family (two in the course of our childhoods). The results are also blatantly clear with my brother who is very depressed and suffers anxiety with panic attacks.

Not only can these childhood traumas cause depression, anxiety, PTSD, ADD/ADHD, but researchers at the CDC have also found that a traumatic childhood can take 20-years off of one's life. The study, which appeared in the November 2009 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, is the latest in the ongoing 14-year-old Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. The study involved 17,337 adults who became members of Kaiser Permanente, a health care maintenance organization in San Diego, between 1995 and 1997. After visiting a primary care facility at the HMO, they voluntarily filled out a standard medical questionnaire that included questions about their childhood. The questionnaire asked them about 10 types of child trauma:
  • Three types of abuse (sexual, physical and emotional).
  • Two types of neglect (physical and emotional).
  • Five types of family dysfunction (having a mother who was treated violently, a household member who’s an alcoholic or drug user, who’s been imprisoned, or diagnosed with mental illness, or parents who are separated or divorced).
The researchers found that people with six or more of these types of trauma died nearly 20 years earlier on average than those without — 60.6 years versus 79.1 years. In this particular research, neglect was not included. So, a person who has been emotionally abused, physically neglected and grew up with an alcoholic father who beat up his wife would have an ACE score of 4. The significance of the study is that it supports the previous research — that child trauma is an important public health issue, stated David Brown of the CDC.

Research also shows that if a person has one risk factor, he or she usually has another. So, the researchers asked: if risk factors for disease, disability and early mortality aren’t randomly distributed, what influences their adoption or development? In parallel research, the neuroscience community has found that that trauma alters the function and development of children’s brains and nervous systems. Epigeneticists, who study how a person’s experiences turn their genes off and on, have found that trauma can turn on genes that manufacture the chemical stressors that affect the brain.

Traumatized children become hyper-vigilant, edgy, and impulsive with hot tempers. They are unable to focus on their schoolwork, unable to sit still, and regard social interactions as threats. These behaviors can get them in trouble or suspended, and that can lead to engaging in risky behaviors, such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol, workaholism, eating too much, etc., which can affect their health. Each of those descriptors fits what happened to my brother: hyper-vigilant, edgy, impulsive, hot tempered, unable to focus on schoolwork, couldn't sit still, and engaged in risky behavior (smoking, drinking).

I still believe that one's personality and genetic make-up have a huge effect on who you develop into as a person. Your perspective in life which leads to how you handle your surroundings, thus your stress levels, greatly impacts your health. I recent dove into that topic of Nature vs Nurture And considering that my brother and I both came from the same parents, with the same childhood trauma, and over the same duration, but we both turned out drastically different gives an indication of personality's effect. Regardless of how we turned out as adults and regardless of my mother's and Dad's perceptions of my brother / my childhoods, we did indeed experience childhood trauma: my brother from 7 years old and onward, and for me from 9 years old and onward.


  1. It seems like your situation was pretty clear cut. Your parents physically fought with each other and there was a lot of trauma in your home. I would never suggest you go back into a situation that was so terrible.

    We had some issues with a sibling who was very difficult to get along with. And for years I resented my mother because she didn't stop the problems. Or talk about what had happened. Crazy making! It felt like contact with her derailed my own sanity.

    Eventually I had to spend time with her due to circumstances. And during those years everything changed. At first, it was very difficult.

    Particularly when I discovered I was more mature than my mom. And that was a shock. I didn't want to be more mature than my own mother. She didn't do her job. Her immaturity had affected me. And I was unable to cope with how it had ruined my life.

    Then I started asking myself. Where do we go from here? Can I just abandon her? No. I couldn't at that point. Could I change her? No. I could not. Did I love her? Yes. I did.

    So I had no choice but to endure bad feelings when I was with her.

    But guess what? As time went by I got to know her more deeply than ever before. Then this picture emerged. Of a person who is flawed, but well intentioned.

    Somehow our communication changed. I listened a lot to her. Asked her about her past. She began to relax and trust me more.

    Then a day came when I had to draw a line with her. I told her I didn't want to hear a certain kind of negativity any more. It upset me and would she please refrain.

    That would have been unthinkable earlier in our lives. But she heard me. And respected my request.

    An actual friendship was there. A friendship that could bear up under disagreement. And it was the start of more respect toward me. Which is what I wanted all along.

    Had my mother been growing up while our relationship changed. I think so. How? I don't know.

    But somewhere in those years past I had accepted that she could not see things as I saw them. And worked from that point out. Befriending her in whatever common ground we had left.

    Then that day came. And I could alter her view of things by asking her to respect me. And it worked!

    Our relationship began to grow even deeper. How could that be? The experts say her personality type would not change.

    But in this case, it did. Trust began to grow. And my mother started opening up for the first time in her life. She had never opened up like it before. Because she felt safe? Perhaps.

    Then, quite unexpectedly, she talked about the big ugly thing from the past. And admitted how much it had hurt me.

    That made things come full circle.

    Sometimes I am a little concerned that when people cut their parents out of their lives and never go back they short change themselves. And their parents. Certainly not in cases of real abuse. But our parents are often immature. And do dumb things in their youth.

    If you can tell your parents what they do and how it affects you. And ask them to stop. And if they respect what you ask for, it's probably a good sign. Sometimes it takes years for parents to "hear" our requests.

    So that is my story. Maybe it will make sense to someone else out there.

  2. More power to the parents who listen and hear... and ones who give unconditional love and support. Being estranged from parent(s) is tough but when situations become so toxic, dysfunctional, and damaging, no contact may be the best alternative. Sad, but true :(

    Kudos to those who can work through the challenges in a healthy and productive way. Unfortunately the inability of my parents to work through challenges in a healthy and productive way is not possible, thus the reason why we got to where we are. When selfishness overrides the ability to work past disagreements or conflicts, progress is thwarted. Moving on toward positivity and happiness is sometimes the best alternative.

    Thank you for your comments and your story-- the result of sticking in there have been worth it! That's so wonderful! May you have years of fulfilling love.