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The Powerful "Lessons" of Childhood Trauma

“She could see that the outer critic typically triggered her into a very old feeling and belief that “People are so unreliable – they always let you down –they just can’t be trusted!”

Pete Walker

A belief that people are unsafe is one of the powerful lessons of childhood trauma. Trauma in childhood can be acute, chronic, or complex. The most impactful is complex trauma. It is so powerful because the caregiver causes the harm. The child is not only experiencing the pain, but the person or persons who are there to protect them and help them cope with life are the ones causing the pain. What is a child to do? This is complex trauma.

According to Columbia Center for EMDR Therapy, complex trauma is defined as:

Trauma that can be ongoing, perpetrated by a caregiver with a sense of betrayal. Examples may be childhood abuse sexual, physical, or emotional, by the caregiver, or trusted family friend. Complex trauma often has interpersonal consequences in the long-term and can affect future relationships. We often see difficulties with regulating emotions, shame, guilt and even disassociation. The keywords to remember with complex trauma are caregiver, sense of betrayal and it happened during childhood.

In this definition, we can look at these three keywords more closely. First the caregiver. When the caregiver is the one perpetrating the abuse, there is a break in the relationship. As a result, extreme damage is caused to this most primary relationship in the child’s life. Connection with other people is important to all of us. It is an essential part of good mental and physical health. But if this relationship, which should be the safest in a child’s life, is broken, how can a child feel safe or connected with any other human being? And this lack of trust, which starts in childhood, extends into adult life.

Next is the sense of betrayal. Part of what I told myself as a child was that if my mother didn’t love me enough to keep me, how could anyone else ever love me? This was a belief I developed as a child, and it shaped an unhealthy worldview. If I didn’t believe anyone would ever truly love me, how could I see the world and those in it as safe and caring? The reality was my mother had betrayed me by allowing the abuse to happen, which resulted in me being taken away from her. But as a child, my brain could not allow me to see her in this light, so it created an alternate narrative and view of myself. I was unlovable.

The other part of complex trauma is that it is happening during childhood while the brain is developing. And depending on the duration, severity, and age of the child, the more impact the trauma has on the brain. Boston University Medical Center psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, MD, puts it like this:

"Because children's brains are still developing, trauma has a much more pervasive and long-range influence on their self-concept, on their sense of the world and on their ability to regulate themselves."

For many children, the “lessons” of trauma are well learned and stick with them for the rest of their lives. This is why we can’t expect adults to “just get over it,” or to say to them, “it happened so long ago, what does it matter now, forget about it”. Because trauma has a deep impact on the developing brain, there is no “just getting over it” or forgetting it. This is not to say adults can’t recover from the trauma experienced in childhood, but it is not a quick or easy thing to do. It takes the help of trustworthy and safe relationships with friends, family, and mental health experts. There is hope, but hope starts with understanding and action.

To find out more about Kathy's story go to:

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