You may recognize your own early childhood experiences, or your partner's experiences, in these descriptions of the harsh events that can happen to children:
- 28 percent of participants experienced physical abuse;
- 27 percent grew up with someone in the household using alcohol and/or drugs;
- 23 percent lost a parent due to separation, divorce or death;
- 21 percentexperienced sexual abuse;
- 19 percent grew up with a mentally ill person in the household;
- 15 percent experienced emotional neglect;
- 13 percent witnessed their mother being treated violently;
- 10 percent experienced physical neglect;
- 11 percent experienced emotional abuse;
- … and there are additional categories.
The study concluded that adverse childhood experiences can have many significant impacts on later adult health. The more trauma a child experiences, the more likely that they will have a personality or stress disorders (such as depression and isolation) later in life. In addition, the more likely they will experience a variety of physical ailments, including obesity and heart disease, in their adulthood.
In a related field, two decades of research on the neuroscience of attachment reveal that childhood traumas, especially those caused by a parent, can cause significant difficulties in one’s adult relationships, even years or decades later.
Childhood traumas range from very mild to extremely severe. Trauma is not always an overt or deliberate act of violation. It can be caused by normal life circumstances (such as overhearing their parents fight or talk about divorce) that leaves the child feeling frightened or threatened. If the trauma isn't ever resolved, it lives inside the child like an injury to the psyche.
Frequently, parents unconsciously repeat the patterns of their own past because they carry their own trauma from childhood. In previous generations, it was fairly common for parents to verbally control or threaten their children into submission, or use physical violence to punish them. An adult who was traumatized in childhood is more likely to traumatize his or her own child.
Even the most caring parents can unintentionally cause a trauma reaction in their children. A mild version may be caused by a parent's emotional or consistent physical neglect. The parent may simply be overwhelmed with other responsibilities, challenges, or hardships, unaware of the child’s unending needs, or unable to care for them.
Some children have built-in resilience, and are able to resolve many of these experiences within their own psyche. They may get help from another parent or caregiver who can help them understand what happened to them. For other children, a series of experiences in which they feel neglected or abandoned can impact them deeply, with significant consequences on their self-image and ability to handle the world.
Ideally, a child gets nurtured, held, and loved by one or both parents, and learns that people (and life) are safe. If they experience too much insecurity or danger, they develop defensive strategies and remain on high alert for any sign of threat.
In our practice, we see many couples who react to each other suddenly, without explanation, and out of proportion to what's happening. When this occurs, we begin to hunt for the subconscious triggers that lie hidden in the mind, like landmines that were set and forgotten about long ago.
The brain's limbic system has a sensitive threat detector. Whenever it detects danger, it responds automatically with one or more defensive strategies. If a threat is not resolved quickly, a classic fight or flight reaction can be triggered. There are four primary responses:
- Fight (protest) until you get your needs met;
- Flight (withdraw) to escape the feeling of NOT getting your needs met;
- Fold (collapse) to avoid being further hurt;
- Freeze (dissociate) to blend into the background and become invisible.
If you watch infants and children carefully, you can see them employ many of these strategies when they get upset or scared. When the limbic brain takes over in a trauma reaction, it can take some time to return to feeling safe and secure.
By the time we reach adulthood, most of our childhood experiences are buried deep in the subconscious. Our most traumatic memories can get suddenly triggered by anything that mimics the past danger — whether physical, emotional or mental. A harsh tone of voice or the hint of judgment can trigger the memory of a raging, frightening parent. Your partner's sideways glance at another person may trigger the feeling of an indifferent parent who ignored you or rejected your pleas for help.
Some children had to suppress their fears or reactions in order to avoid further abandonment or rejection, which doubles their potential reactivity in adulthood. Defenses lurk just under the surface, primed to explode upon the slightest pressure. A conscious, relaxed adult may suddenly start feeling like a frightened child — desperate, out of control, and ready to throw a tantrum. It makes no sense to the conscious adult mind, but it makes perfect sense to the primal inner child, who still lives deep within us. Keep reading...