You haven’t been feeling yourself lately. And, you’ve been wondering: are you suffering from unresolved childhood trauma? You thought it was over.
But, could your trauma be leaking into your adult life, making you feel everything is turned upside down? If that’s so, why now?
“Why now” probably seems like the 60 million dollar question. You’ve done your best to move on. Even successfully blocked it out most of the time.
But, lately, you’ve started to feel anxious again. Sometimes on the verge of panic. Depressed feelings are beginning to take over. Maybe you even feel like withdrawing into a shell.
How could your trauma be unresolved? What is this about?
What Is Unresolved Trauma?
Maybe you’ve heard this term, but what exactly is “unresolved trauma” anyway? You’ve told yourself it’s all in the past and you’ve moved on. Isn’t that enough?
Maybe you’ve had therapy, too. How could you still be suffering?
When you’ve been traumatized as a child, it lives deep inside you. You could even say, it settles in your bones.
The memories, even if pushed away and not conscious, are etched into your symptoms, in your relationship struggles, and into your not-good self-esteem.
Many traumatized children feel they’ve always been on their own and do the best they can to work things out from themselves. Maybe you can relate to that.
The problem is, there is only so much you can do all by yourself. And, that’s why the deepest effects of childhood trauma often go “unresolved.”
You might now be asking: even if you’ve had therapy?
Sadly, yes. Many therapists aren’t experts in childhood trauma and that’s what you need to be reached at the core of your early experiences.
There is no template for working out unresolved childhood trauma. You have your own experiences and these have affected you in your own particular way.
Let’s say, you haven’t had the help that understands the nuances of how your trauma lives in your very individual form of panic, anxiety, depression, problems being close, distrust, difficulties with food, or poor self-esteem.
The roots of your childhood trauma, unfortunately, stay unresolved. Those symptoms might go underground for a while.
But, stress that causes an emotional upheaval, or an event that serves as too close a reminder of your earlier trauma can put you back into the original experiences.
The ones you’ve done your best to overcome and, even, to believe are over.
Why “The Past” Isn’t Always The Past
Although your trauma is technically “in the past,” traumatizing experiences in childhood can’t be laid to rest until the ways they live on in your current experiences, symptoms, and relationships are deeply understood.
Freud said it, and he was right. We have a “compulsion to repeat,” even if we try not to.
That’s why you might find yourself in relationships that remind you of those that traumatized you in the past.
Or, you suddenly realize you’re caught up in repeating the ways you had to protect yourself as a child. By swallowing your feelings, being quiet and good, or taking care of others, not expecting anyone to take care of you.
There are many different forms your symptoms or behaviors might take. Again, these are very individual to you.
The important thing is: the past is never “just” the past. Until you’ve had help working out exactly how the roots of your past are alive in the present, your childhood trauma can remain “unresolved.”
So, let’s talk about what forms childhood trauma can take.
Sometimes – as in physical or sexual abuse, trauma is quite obvious. But, there are many kinds of childhood trauma that you might not identify as trauma at all.
What Causes Trauma In Childhood?
Childhood trauma is most certainly physical or sexual abuse. That’s obvious.
But, neglect is also traumatic, and so is the loss of a parent, a serious childhood illness, a learning disability that left you doubting yourself, too many siblings, a detached, emotionally unavailable, or anxious parent, even your parent’s own childhood trauma.
Maybe you experienced a combination of these. But let’s take each trauma, one by one.
Childhood neglect means that your emotional or physical needs were not attended to. This may be because your parents were overwhelmed and preoccupied.
Or because of the mental illness of one or both – making them expect you to be the “parent,” take care of the other kids, or do many more household chores than any child should.
Whatever was the cause, your needs for nurturing and care went unseen, were pushed aside, or were greatly resented. A child should never be exploited because of a parent’s needs.
A child’s emotional and physical needs should come first. If yours did not, you experienced neglect. And, neglect is traumatic.
Loss Of A Parent
Losing a parent to death or abandonment early in your life is a trauma. No matter how nurtured you were by other relatives or your remaining parent, this kind of loss runs deep.
And, if your sadness wasn’t seen or heard or allowed, then that loss lives on even more significantly inside you. You needed (or may still need) a chance to mourn.
What makes the loss of a parent count as trauma?
Because you learned much too early that a needed loved one can suddenly go away or be taken away. You grow up afraid of loss.
Even if you lost your parent in your early 20’s, this is a vulnerable time for any child. You may fear closeness because closeness and need signify possible loss.
This can affect your self-esteem, if you (as many children irrationally do), blame yourself for your parent’s death (or abandonment.)
Most unresolved childhood trauma affects self-esteem and creates anxiety. Serious childhood illness is another.
Serious Childhood Illness
Did you suffer a serious childhood illness? If so, you were likely isolated at home or hospitalized.
This meant being removed from normal social activities and you probably felt lonely, maybe even worried about being different.
Maybe now you feel less socially confident because of it and find yourself not sure where you fit in.
Hospitalization also means separation from parents, often traumatizing medical procedures, and frequently fear. This can leave you with anxiety that persists.
If your attachments to your parents were secure and they were available and supportive, that helps. If not, you may now feel insecure in important relationships.
Just as in any childhood trauma, there is a little child part of you that still feels it.
A Learning Disability
If you struggled to learn, had dyslexia or ADHD, or any other learning problem, you likely felt different or compared yourself unfavorably to the other kids.
Learning problems are particularly difficult to live with if they went undiagnosed and you didn’t get sufficient help. Even very smart kids end up thinking they aren’t smart at all.
This has a very negative impact on your self-image. You might have tried very hard to do better and better, struggling against challenges you couldn’t control. Or maybe you gave in and gave up.
Either you are still too perfectionistic, trying always to please, but never feeling good enough. Or you feel always behind and can’t get ahead.
Effects of learning problems can live with you, even if you think they’re all worked out.
Too Many Siblings
Are you one in a family of many kids? Did it feel like there was never enough to go around? That’s often the case in families with a lot of children.
Resources are limited, especially if you were all born close together. And, especially if your mother was tired, beleaguered, and preoccupied with the siblings that seemed to always need more.
Or, if you were the oldest – expected to care for the younger ones.
As loving as you might be convinced your family was (or maybe you didn’t feel that way at all), being a child among many siblings can be traumatic.
You might have felt lost among the many. Not seen or heard. Pushed aside, left out, and very much alone. This sibling situation can leave a child emotionally neglected and feeling unloved.
These feelings carry into adult life. They affect self-esteem and create disbelief that future relationships can give you what you need.
You might even feel you have to push your needs aside or be the giver in order to be loved. And you may live with deep hunger for the love you feel you can and never will find.
The effects of too many siblings are even more pronounced with a detached or unavailable mom.
Detached, Emotionally Unavailable, Or Anxious Parent
A parent that is unreachable is traumatic. Children need to be seen, heard, held, emotionally embraced and valued. The effects of waiting, watching, longing to have your feelings heard can last a lifetime.
Maybe you’re wary of your needs and uncertain of being loved. And, maybe you learned to stay distant yourself, not expecting much.
Perhaps you had an anxious parent. One that was afraid, expected catastrophe, hid away from people. And, didn’t trust.
A parent’s anxiety can seep into a child’s pores and leave you traumatized, constantly worried, and living with the same kinds of anxieties your parent had, without even knowing it happened.
An emotionally detached or anxious parent was probably traumatized too.
A Parent’s Own Childhood Trauma
There is definitely such a thing as transgenerational trauma.
If your mom or dad had a traumatic childhood and that trauma was also unresolved, it is passed down from parent to child, from unconscious mind to unconscious mind.
Children are vulnerable. You picked it up. You were affected too.
Parents that were traumatized live out their trauma. They often can’t be fully there for you or become identified with the abuser who abused them.
Or, in instances where your mom or dad survived a horrific event, such as the Holocaust, the terror and unbearable losses can live like ghosts haunting both them and you.
All these various sources of trauma and their effects live on if they are unresolved and all can affect you long into your adulthood – in their many ways and many forms.
How Does Childhood Trauma Affect Adulthood?
Childhood trauma can sometimes leak into your adult life because, no matter how hard you’ve tried to go on, there is still a traumatized little child living inside you.
If you haven’t had sufficient help, or the right kind of therapy, to work out your trauma, this child part of you still carries your trauma and suffering.
Maybe you don’t always feel it or know it’s there.
But, symptoms of your childhood trauma spill out when you’re stressed. Or when something in your life serves as a subtle or not-so-subtle reminder of what happened to you as a child.
Your childhood trauma lives in your symptoms. Depression. Panic attacks. An eating disorder. Obsessional worries, catastrophic anxieties, and relationship fears.
You might have difficulties trusting, low self-esteem, fears of being judged, constant attempts to please, outbursts of frustration, or social anxiety symptoms that won’t let up.
You don’t have to live this way. If you’ve had upsurges of memories or symptoms, maybe you’ve wondered all your life, can childhood trauma be healed? It can.
The past lives in the present unless you have someone to help you see and understand the intricate ways it does.
This means taking your own particular situation, history, and the complexities of the trauma you experienced into close account.
You need expert help to work out the ways your trauma threads itself unconsciously through your symptoms, your feelings, and your relationships.
Let’s talk more about that help.
Can Childhood Trauma Be Healed?
Yes, unresolved childhood trauma can be healed. But, how do you begin looking for help?
Seek out therapy with someone psychoanalytically or psychodynamically trained.
A therapist who understands the impact of childhood experiences on adult life, particularly traumatic ones. Have several consultations to see if you feel empathically understood. If not, continue looking.
A safe therapeutic space, one in which you can build trust, is important.
Your therapist must understand and allow for your distrust; because how can anyone, especially with childhood trauma, trust a stranger right away?
In a good therapy for childhood trauma, all feelings need to be allowed, encouraged, and heard.
Those feelings might be fear, terror, deep sadness, and anger.
Your therapy also needs to unfold at your pace. And the various kinds of self-protection you’ve put into place to manage your feelings must be respected and gently discussed.
You should not be pushed or judged or expected to move faster than you can.
A sensitive, kind, empathic response is what you need. The little traumatized child that still lives inside you has to feel safe and seen. Yet, empathy is not everything.
You also need someone with experience and knowledge about childhood trauma and how it affects your life. Someone who sees the very specific effects on you.
When you have this kind of therapy and can give yourself the time you need, you will heal from unresolved childhood trauma.
You don’t have to live with the upsurge of symptoms that leak out under stress or unpleasant reminders. And your self-confidence can flourish and grow. These are the ways you heal.
I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a Los Angeles based psychoanalyst specializing in the effects of childhood trauma. I’ve worked for over 35 years with survivors of many forms of trauma. Your life can change.