Monday, September 13, 2021

The Social, Emotional and Behavioral Effects of Childhood Trauma in Adults


Childhood trauma often comes with a long list of side effects, and many of these do not go away even after the child grows up and becomes an adult with the traumatic experience long behind them. Depending on the type of trauma that the child experienced and how they were supported to cope with and overcome it afterwards, they may have developed a lot of negative coping mechanisms and strategies from their traumatic childhood that they will continue to use as an adult. This can often lead to emotional and behavioral issues in adults that are often a lot harder to deal with and get help for, since most of the world is not equipped to understand the impact of childhood trauma in adults and most people are unlikely to see the bigger picture. There are tests to identify potential trauma for those who have been suffering, which is why it is essential to get on top of this as soon as negative coping mechanisms start to become evident.

Anger, for example, is one such unhealthy coping mechanism that traumatized children may develop which stays with them long into adulthood. Some people who have experienced childhood trauma will experience powerful and sometimes explosive anger as a response to various difficulties that they encounter in their adult life. This may often be accompanied by intense guilt and shame, depression, anxiety and many other problems. Here are some of the reasons why adults who experienced trauma as a child will often experience intense emotional and, in some cases, behavioral problems as adults.

Warped Sense of Interaction with Others:

As children, our parents and immediate families provide us with the ‘blueprint’ for adult life. Somebody who grows up in a relatively healthy family with parents who encourage them to talk about their emotions and problems, discuss situations, and validate their feelings will usually continue doing this through adulthood, and as a result tend to have healthier relationships with others. They will usually have learned healthy coping mechanisms for their anger as a child and know when getting angry is and is not appropriate.

On the other hand, a child who has experienced trauma in their family might have a very warped idea of how they should interact with others. For example, a child who had a parent who responded with anger to every little mistake that they made is given this as a blueprint for their own adult life. Since kids learn their vital skills from the people around them, these situations teach children that anger is the appropriate response – and in some cases, a response that works – to all kinds of minor problems.

While adults who have an inappropriate or exaggerated anger response can certainly learn better coping mechanisms with the help of a therapist, the best chance of success comes with early intervention in childhood from professionals such as therapists, social workers and teachers who can provide children with alternative strategies to the unhealthy ones that they have learned at home while their brain is still developing.

Strong Sense of Fear:

We all have an inner child. For those who grew up in healthy and loving families, your inner child might be the part of you that enjoys playing and having fun, even as an adult. On the other hand, the inner child of an adult who grew up in an abusive home is much more fearful. Playing and having fun might not have been main priorities for them as children and much of their childhood might have been filled with trying to survive and get by, which can continue long into childhood. Adults who have been abused in childhood, especially when the abusers were the people who were supposed to care for them, or when their parents and other key adults did not believe them or offer any support, will usually take a strong sense of fear with them into adulthood. As a result, this can impact their friendships, romantic relationships and even workplace relationships.

It is not uncommon for these people to deal with a feeling that nobody is safe and feel that they cannot trust anybody to look out for them or support them, even when it comes to their partner or closest friends. Because of this, it is no surprise that adults who were abused in childhood tend to have a higher relationship and marriage failure rate compared to those who were not.

Burn Out and Exhaustion:

Experiencing continuous abuse at home as a child can lead to a condition known as complex post-traumatic stress disorder. This condition differs from post-traumatic stress disorder in one main way. While PTSD is caused by exposure to one traumatic event, such as a car accident or natural disaster, C-PTSD is caused when the victim is exposed to several different traumatic events over a sustained period of time, such as child abuse in the family home. The impact of this trauma can be even more significant if the victim is trapped in the situation at the time, which is often the case with children who are abused.

In adulthood, complex PTSD can impact life in several different ways. One of the main symptoms that can be debilitating in all aspects of life is exhaustion and burnout. With this condition, your body and mind are constantly preparing for the next thing to go wrong. Constant fight or flight and hypervigilance can leave you completely exhausted, which can impact personal relationships, work performance and much more.

Inability to Communicate in a Healthy Way:

Many adults who were abused at home as children never learned how to communicate in a healthy way. Instead, they often used unhealthy coping mechanisms to get what they needed as a child. This could be angry outbursts, withdrawing, overstepping boundaries, or in some cases, fawning and people-pleasing. Fawning and people-pleasing is often developed as a response by children who were abused by adults who would withhold basic needs from the child until they behaved a certain way, leading children to believe that in order to get their needs met, they need to either behave in a certain way or provide something to the other person first. This can show up at work, where employees are unable to say no to requests and end up burning themselves out, or in romantic relationships where resentment can quickly breed as the person does not feel that they are equipped to say no to their partner or set boundaries with them.

Lack of Understanding of Boundaries:

Children who are brought up in abusive households often do not get the chance to develop any understanding of boundaries. Boundaries set by the abusive parents or caregivers are often more controlling than boundary-like, and are more often than not very unreasonable. In addition, abused children are unlikely to be given the chance to set their own boundaries with parents or have their boundaries respected.

While there is always some imbalance of power between a parent and a child, this significant imbalance when it comes to boundaries can have a serious impact on a person in later life. For example, they may grow up unable to set boundaries and/or believe that they do not deserve to have them, which can put them at higher risk of abusive relationships or being taken advantage of as an adult.

Guilt and Shame:

Many people who experienced abuse and trauma during their childhoods will grow up internalizing the words and actions of the people who raised and/or traumatized them as a child. It is not uncommon for adults who were abused as children to blame themselves for the abuse that happened to them and any other bad things that happen to them later in life.

If you are currently dealing with this, you are not alone – studies have found that this is one of the most common problems that adults who have experienced childhood abuse and trauma face. It is not unusual for these people to believe that they deserve to be treated more negatively than others or think that they should have found ways to avoid the trauma that they went through as a child. Some people will also feel guilty that their trauma is ‘not as bad’ as that as others and feel shame regarding how they have reacted to it. In addition, the behavioral issues, such as anger or an inability to set boundaries with others, can lead to even more shame and guilt building over one’s life.

How to Get Help:

If you experienced an abusive and/or otherwise traumatic childhood and can resonate with some of the above, the good news is that it’s never too late to get help. Even if you were able to access help as a child through social workers, teachers, therapists and other professionals, continuing to get the help that is available to you as an adult will help you mitigate and cope with the negative effects of a traumatic childhood. EMDR therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy can be very useful for helping you deal with trauma triggers, learn how to set and respect boundaries, and build better coping mechanisms for stress. Relationship therapy can also be very helpful if your trauma has begun to have an impact on your romantic relationship.

The effects of childhood abuse and trauma are not exclusive to children. Even when you are grown and away from the abusive situation, the impact of trauma can be long-lasting and devastating.


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