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How Trauma Occurs During Childhood

From birth, children have a range of core needs that need to be met by their parents. These needs go beyond feeding and clothing and are considered core because they are vital for psychological and emotional development. Young children are not capable of meeting their own needs and depend on caregivers to provide them with a sense of love and nurturance, safety, stability, and guidance. When certain core emotional and psychological needs are not met in childhood, children develop negative beliefs about themselves and others that lay the foundations of self-esteem and ability to relate in interpersonal relationships.

In addition, children develop coping strategies to deal with a difficult family environment, abusive or unavailable parents and overwhelming negative and confusing emotions. Such coping strategies, although allowing them to survive and move through life as they grow up, can become rigid, damaging over time and persist through life much after they are no longer needed or helpful.

Core Childhood Needs

  • The need for love, bonding and nurturance
  • The need for safety and stability
  • The need to freely and safely express your emotions
  • The need for autonomy and having the freedom to make personal choices
  • The need to feel competent and capable

Coping strategies that become harmful over time

  • Being in a constant state of hypervigilance and watching out for danger
  • Inability to trust others, always on the lookout for hidden motives
  • Social isolation and withdrawal
  • Emotional numbness and shutting down feelings
  • Substance abuse
  • Rigid perfectionism and constant need for control
  • Constant people pleasing and/or self-sacrificing
  • Dissociation
  • Regulating emotions through constant distractions

What is Complex Trauma

Complex trauma describes both children’s exposure to multiple traumatic events—often of an invasive, interpersonal nature—and the wide-ranging, long-term effects of this exposure. These events are severe and pervasive, such as abuse or profound neglect. They usually occur early in life and can disrupt many aspects of a child’s development and the formation of a sense of self. Since these events often occur with a parent, they interfere with the child’s ability to form a secure attachment. Complex traumatic events and experiences that are considered stressors are:

  • Repetitive, prolonged, or cumulative
  • Most often interpersonal, involving direct harm, exploitation, and maltreatment including neglect/abandonment/antipathy by primary caregivers
  • Often occur at developmentally vulnerable times, especially in early childhood or adolescence

It may come as a surprise, but research has demonstrated that psychological maltreatment is not only the most prevalent and earliest onset form of abuse, but also the most chronic form of trauma exposure in comparison to physical or sexual abuse. Psychological abuse in childhood is the strongest predictor of adult symptomatic internalising behaviours (e.g. gastrointestinal problems, migraines, fibromyalgia, self-harm, etc.), attachment problems (difficulties in interpersonal relationships), anxiety, depression, substance abuse and PTSD. Most strikingly, experiences of emotional abuse or emotional neglect have been found to carry the greatest “weight” or “toxicity” out of all forms of childhood abuse.

Childhood psychological abuse is the most challenging and prevalent form of child abuse and neglect but also the most difficult to define. While physical and sexual abuse are obvious and easily named as such, psychological and emotional abuse can just as often be about the absence of something rather than the presence of certain behaviours or treatment. Clients often have difficulty identifying their family environment as abusive or neglectful due to the lack of overt abusive experiences, yet sense that things weren’t right or the same as in others’ homes.

Types of emotional neglect (absence of warmth, support and nurturance)

  • Caregiver is not physically present for a lot of the time – they were physically absent due to work, hospitalisation, substance or alcohol abuse or prioritising another family.
  • Caregiver is emotionally absent due to severe depression or other chronic mental illness
  • Extreme family stress due to domestic violence or lack of social supports interferes with caregiver’s emotional availability
  • Caregiver ignores child’s bids for attention or shuns child
  • Caregiver abandons the child for periods of time with no indication of when he or she will return or imposes extended periods of isolation from others

Types of emotional abuse

  • Caregiver calls the child derogatory names or ridicules or belittles the child
  • Caregiver blames the child for family problems or abuse of the child
  • Caregiver displays an ongoing pattern of negativity or hostility toward the child
  • Caregiver makes excessive and/or inappropriate demands of the child
  • Child is exposed to extreme or unpredictable caregiver behaviours due to the caregiver’s mental illness, substance or alcohol abuse, and/or violent/aggressive behaviour
  • Caregiver uses fear, intimidation, humiliation, threats, or bullying to discipline the child or pressures the child to keep secrets
  • Caregiver demonstrates a pattern of boundary violations, excessive monitoring, or overcontrol that is inappropriate considering the child’s age
  • Child is expected to assume an inappropriate level of responsibility or is placed in a role reversal, such as frequently taking care of younger siblings or attending to the emotional needs of the caregiver
  • Caregiver undermines child’s significant relationships
  • Caregiver does not allow the child to engage in age-appropriate socialisation and activities

How Trauma Informed Counselling Can Help

The past is stable. What happened, happened. No matter what we do in therapy , no one can change history. How it is remembered, how it is reported, how it is felt or interpreted, how we regard it, this can all change. The good news is, we can change the effect the past continues to have now and in the future. That is really the aim of trauma recovery. Babette Rothschild, author of The Body Remembers

Trauma informed counselling can help in many ways, using different techniques and approaches. It has the following goals:

  • Offer education to empower the client, normalise their symptoms, explain why they are experiencing them and reduce shame by creating a different way to relate to the trauma. Education also helps clients appreciate how they survived instead of how they were victimised.
  • Help clients build resources for modulating autonomic nervous system arousal which may be occurring a lot of the time. While de-stabilisation reflects autonomic dysregulation, the antidote is learning skills to better self-regulate.
  • Increase client’s awareness of post-traumatic triggering and habitual triggered survival responses. The understanding of the logic of trauma decreases shame and increases understanding of cause-and-effect.
  • Address the implicit memories triggered by everyday cues. Rather than ‘process’ event memories, clients need to process the ‘living legacy’ of implicit body and emotional memories. Please note, it is not necessary to speak directly of traumatic events nor discuss them in any detail in order for integration and processing to happen. In fact, in many situations it is contra-indicated and can be harmful and triggering to the client.
  • Help clients overcome their fear of intimacy and/or start asking for more and better in relationships.
  • Help clients recognise and re-work hypervigilence, mistrust, habits of avoidance, and fight or flight responses in relationships.
  • Assist clients to develop a strong sense of self that includes “Who I am now after the trauma,” rather than identifying with victimisation.

If you think you may benefit from counselling with me, contact me to find out more or arrange an appointment.

Servicing the areas of Malvern, Armadale, Prahran, Glen Iris, Caulfield North and surrounding suburbs.