“Many abused children cling to the hope that growing up will bring escape and freedom. But the personality formed in the environment of coercive control is not well adapted to adult life. The survivor is left with fundamental problems in basic trust, autonomy, and initiative. She approaches the task of early adulthood – establishing independence and intimacy – burdened by major impairments in self-care, in cognition and in memory, in identity, and in the capacity to form stable relationships. She is still a prisoner of her childhood; attempting to create a new life, she reencounters the trauma.”Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror
~ Judith Lewis Herman
Personal Experience with Trauma as a Child
If you did not have a traumatic childhood consider yourself lucky. There are a few memories that still play back in my mind – one of them was when I was punished for something I did not do. When I say punished it doesn’t mean sit in the corner, in India it is a common practice for children to be given a couple of whacks, slapped, hit with a slipper/flip-flop or even a cane.
During one of the annual festivals in suburban Bombay, Mount Mary’s festival, which was one of my favourite places to visit as a child. I used to get this little metal boat that I could put in a tub with a little candle to power it, and this used to make me really happy.
On the other hand, this festival had something of interest that most parents took home, a thin bamboo cane used for whipping. So it was always a funny thing, on one hand you have a boat and on the other a cane. I still remember walking down the streets of the festival and see the shops that sold the edibles, candles, so many knick-knacks and of course shops that sold the cane.
There’s a particular incident that I recollect very vividly to date, because I was not believed to be telling the truth when I was.
I have always been fond of animals, and as a kid we used to have these little budgerigars or love birds at home in a little cage. One day Sunny managed to escape his cage, when I noticed it I ran and told my mother, but she did not believe the bird could get out of the cage without assistance. He was sitting on the pelmet, and we couldn’t reach him, so she called my grandfather, and it was difficult catching him with him flying about out of their reach.
Although after he was put back in the cage, neither of them believed he could escape on their own, and I was at the receiving end of a situation I had not created. Every time I go back to my childhood I’m flooded with unhappy memories, I actually have to struggle to recollect the good ones, and this is actually how our brain works as humans.
If you have read my article on ways to grow beyond your childhood trauma I counter this behaviour by trying to recollect as many memories I have that brought me joy in my childhood, so it becomes easier to let go of bad ones.
I’m not here to talk about past traumatic experiences, I understand that the way I was brought up at that time was the norm for most children of my time. I remember the howls and screams of my neighbour’s children, seemed to me, they had it quite bad as well.
I’m well aware that it’s not just me who has suffered, some have suffered far worse and some less, but today there’s far more research on how going through this in childhood impacts adult life. I do hope more parents gain strength to break through generational patterns and provide children with an environment that helps build healthier adults.
“The greater a child’s terror, and the earlier it is experienced, the harder it becomes to develop a strong and healthy sense of self.” ~ Nathaniel BrandenSix Pillars of Self-Esteem
Importance of Childhood
The first 7 years of our lives lay the foundation for later learning and healthy development in all areas – emotional, psychological, physical or spiritual. If during that time a child has had negative or unpleasant experiences, such memories stay with the child for the rest of his/her life, leading to emotional challenges as an adult.
In the first seven years the child is like a sponge absorbing everything from his environment, our beliefs, behavioural patterns, responses and so on. So a happy childhood leads to an adult who is a balanced individual, whereas an unhappy childhood may cause imbalances in our thinking, behaviour and so on.
Rudolph Steiner suggests that before the soul of the child incarnates, the soul chooses its family and parents.
“Experience has taught us that we have only one enduring weapon in our struggle against mental illness: the emotional discovery and emotional acceptance of the truth in the individual and unique history of our childhood.” ~ Alice MillerThe Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self
The effects of childhood trauma in adults
Unfortunately it’s not just bad memories that we carry forward to our adult life, childhood trauma leaves lasting effects on the brain and personality. Childhood trauma is not just rampant but linked to multiple forms of dysfunction.
Listed below are some effects of childhood trauma in adults that has been linked by research.
Common Psychiatric Disorders
Everyday life puts us into situations where we come across unknown people and situations, which is not very easy for people who suffered from childhood trauma. According to a study on social anxiety disorder and childhood trauma in the context of anxiety (behavioural inhibition), impulsivity (behavioural activation) and quality of life, a correlation was found between the severity of social anxiety disorder (SAD) symptoms and the amount of childhood trauma exposure. The research assessed five dimensions of childhood maltreatment: physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect and emotional neglect.
Those who have SAD display symptoms such as an intense fear of embarrassment, humiliation and negative evaluation, especially when they have to meet with people who they don’t know or if they are publicly scrutinized. This makes things awkward, and the person avoids these situations, this ends up affecting their social life and career.
Life tends to throw us a curveball sometimes and in worse case scenarios there are many times we hit rock bottom but some of us manage to pull ourselves out or crawl out of the situation. It isn’t easy to do and sadly yet again adults who have experienced childhood trauma have it far worse.
According to a study on “The Biological Effects of Childhood Trauma”, trauma activates the body’s biological stress response systems, this has behavioral and emotional effects that are similar to a person with post-traumatic stress symptom. A person’s biological stress response consists of different systems that interact with each other to protect oneself from threats and trigger the “fight or flight” system.
Inhibition of sexual behavior, core symptoms of major depression, higher cortisol levels which have effects such as weight gain, slowed healing, muscle weakness, severe fatigue, irritability, medical illness and brain structure damage. Adults with a history of childhood trauma also display hypertension, accelerated atherosclerosis, metabolic syndrome, impaired growth and immune system suppression and poorer medical health.
“The fetus is biochemically connected to the mother, and her external, internal, physical, and mental health affect the overall development of the fetus. Stress and depression during pregnancy have been proven to have long-term and even permanent effects on the offspring. Such effects include a vulnerability to chronic anxiety, elevated fear, propensity to addictions, and poor impulse control.” ~ Darius CikanaviciusHuman Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults
“The sheer weight of the many reports over the years certainly implicates child abuse as a possible factor in drug abuse for many people,” says Dr. Cora Lee Wetherington, NIDA’s Women’s Health Coordinator.
Although there isn’t enough data to understand the complete situation, studies are being conducted that help link childhood physical abuse and adult substance abuse.
In a particular study which included the social history and demographic data of 178 where 101 patients undergoing treatment for drug/alcohol addiction were from the United States and the other 77 from Australia, the study determined that a whooping 84% of the sample reported a history of child abuse/neglect.
Another study of 733 women found those who were physically abused as children more likely to abuse drugs as they grew older. Strangely that in this sample even after controlling family history of substance abuse the results were the same, making a healthy childhood imperative and even intervention and support.
Quality of Life
Abuse survivors are less happy, less satisfied and find living less worthwhile as compared to people who were not abused as children.
According to research, 9% more of people who have not been abused as children feel their health is very good.
Apart from an inclination to drugs, studies have found that opioid dependent individuals who have a history of sexual abuse have poorer mental and physical health as compared to those with no sexual abuse in the past.
While other studies link adverse childhood experiences to a variety of issues that lead to early death, due to diseases like cancer, diabetes and more… either due to lifestyle or habits that are coping mechanisms to deal with the trauma.
Sadly people who have been abused have a higher probability of entering an abusive relationship in future.
Two studies that I came across while doing this article linked childhood maltreatment and even harsh punishments dealt to children to anti-social behaviour in adults.
Pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping, and hitting were considered as harsh physical punishment while child maltreatment included physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical neglect, emotional neglect, and even exposure to intimate partner violence.
Both the studies confirmed that abused children display an increase in anti-social behaviour as adults. While one of the studies was a long-term study proved that even at the age of 50 years the survivors still show this anti-social behaviour.
Frederick Douglass said that “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Apart from the fact that he’s correct, if we pause and take a look at how human systems are functioning, from war, to poverty, to racism or nationalism, we’re ensuring we have an endless cycle of dysfunctional adults.
Those of us who have children have to really work hard to ensure we create healthy functional human beings, it’s even harder for those who have experienced trauma as they grew up to try breaking the cycle of abuse and consciously parent our children.
My article on 4 ways to grow past your childhood trauma should help adults deal with their past, so they can rewrite their future and help protect childhood.
People who were abused as children are more likely to be abused as an adult
Associations of Harsh Physical Punishment and Child Maltreatment in Childhood With Antisocial Behaviors in Adulthood
Child maltreatment and the risk of antisocial behaviour: A population-based cohort study spanning 50 years
A study of the relationship between child abuse and drug addiction in 178 patients: preliminary results