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Childhood is supposed to be the time of joy, happiness and growth. As a child, you’re supposed to learn about the world through your experiences with your parents and the people around you. Of course, the environment you grow in is crucial for you to grow into a healthy adult. But unfortunately, some people don’t experience the blessing of living in a happy and constructive household. Do you think you grew up in a healthy environment?
If you were neglected or abused as a kid, you probably suffer the consequences to this day. What’s important to know is that abuse doesn’t always leave physical marks (although it definitely can). If you listened to constant yelling and screaming, if you were discouraged from expressing your opinion, or maybe shamed for your interests, you probably felt scared and ashamed.
As children, many times we don’t really know when we’re abused. The reality we’re experiencing is the only reality for us. We don’t know that somewhere there are parents that don’t humiliate their children, parents who don’t yell or forget to make us dinner. We think that’s just how families work. So we bring our feelings of shame, fear and sadness into adulthood, not even knowing something’s wrong.
Do you feel like something about your life is a bit off, and wonder if you’ve suffered trauma in your childhood? Feel free to continue reading to learn about some signs of childhood trauma you may not be aware of.
1. Childish reactions
Coping with stress is one of many things us adults need to learn how to deal with. While children learn to cry and throw a tantrum to relieve their frustrations, it would be a bit odd to see an adult angrily stomp their feet in the middle of a long and boring meeting. Adults need to handle their problems in a different, more mature way. But if you’ve suffered trauma as a child, when life gets too hard to handle you may find yourself drifting off to simpler times. This is called age regression – a coping mechanism in which your behavior is temporarily reversed to earlier stages of development. What that means is that when faced with stress, you begin acting in a child-like ways. This could be using baby talk, throwing tantrums, rocking or pacing to soothe yourself or using dolls or stuffed animals for support. Some extreme cases of age regression can include crying in a fetal position or bed-wetting. Research has shown that memories of trauma can trigger age regression, making individuals who suffered childhood trauma likely to use this coping mechanism when they’re feeling overwhelmed and don’t know how to cope.
2. Insecure attachment
There is a theory – a theory of attachment – that describes the way we learn about relationships through interactions with our parents or any other caregivers. According to that theory, if your parents fulfill your needs when you’re a baby, you gain a positive self-image, and you learn to trust people around you. That is called secure attachment. But if your caregivers are unresponsive or neglectful, your baby brain learns that others cannot be trusted, and you develop a negative self-image. This is an insecure attachment. When you grow up and start building your relationships, the problems of insecure attachment can rise to the surface. You may have intense feelings of abandonment or become too attached to other people to the point where you get highly upset to the thought of them leaving. Or maybe you’re so scared of commitment and the possibility that others may hurt you, that you don’t even try to form a relationship with anybody. In a nutshell, if you’re insecurely attached as a result from childhood trauma, your relationships bring you intense anxiety and fear instead of joy.
3. Conflict avoidance
Did your parents often dismiss your thoughts and ideas? Were you allowed to stand up for yourself if you felt you needed to? Or were you criticized every step of the way?
Dismissive or overly critical environment could have made you afraid of confrontation. Because you were once so deeply afraid of upsetting your parents, you grow up being a people pleaser, still afraid to upset anyone around you. You learned to expect negative outcomes and fear others’ reactions. This behavior can manifest in different types of relationships – with your partner, family, workplace or your friend group. You don’t really voice your opinions and you let everyone have it their way. Maybe you change the topic if something is upsetting to you, pretend you’re okay with something you’re not or even force yourself to stay in an uncomfortable situation, just so you wouldn’t have to disappoint anyone.
4. Low self worth
Did your parents praise you for your achievements? Or did they just brush them off like it didn’t happen? And were they gentle with their criticism, or did they humiliate you and insult you when you did something wrong? If you were constantly criticized for everything you did, no matter how small or insignificant, you probably didn’t think very highly of yourself. You learned that you never do anything right, even if you try. You thought that you were worthless, and maybe you’re still holding onto that feeling.
If you’re suffering from low self-worth, you may be undermining everything you do. Even if you’re told you did a good job, you still think it wasn’t done right. You strive for perfection and feel miserable when you don’t achieve it. You feel you’re never good enough, for others or for yourself. You live in a constant state of anxiety, wondering what others think of you or seeking their approval.
5. Risky behavior
Lastly, engaging in risky behavior is another possible sign of childhood trauma. Risky behavior is any behavior with an uncertain risk – binge drinking, promiscuity, taking drugs, reckless driving and so on. All of these behaviors are considered self-harm as well. Studies have shown that exposure to traumatic events and the development of PTSD symptoms can make you seek these behaviors more frequently. It is thought that if you were abused or neglected as a child, you experienced it as a life-threatening event. Now as an adult, you are actively seeking those same experiences, because maybe you don’t really think you deserve any better. Also, seeking risk may be a maladaptive strategy to help you overcome all those negative feelings you experienced. Even if you don’t see it as a big deal – risking your life and health is certainly a cause for concern.
If you feel like your childhood trauma may be holding you back from enjoying your life, you should know that it’s never too late to get better. Sometimes the memories of trauma get buried so deep inside our minds that we go years and years without remembering. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t feel that something’s wrong, and it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask for help. Trauma response is valid and serious no matter how much time has passed since it happened. After all, we all have an inner child inside of us, a child that deserves to be loved and nurtured. If you recognize yourself in any of the signs we mentioned, we strongly encourage you to talk to a trained mental health professional. Childhood trauma can be especially dangerous since it’s commonly paired with depression or PTSD. Maybe you weren’t taken care of when you were little, but now your life is in your hands, and you have the opportunity to make up for it and take care of yourself!
Age Regression: Trauma, Coping Mechanisms, and Therapy Info Getty. (2022, January 24). Verywell Health. https://www.verywellhealth.com/age-repression-therapy-5212676#toc-age-regression-from-trauma
Augsburger, M., & Elbert, T. (2017). When do traumatic experiences alter risk-taking behavior? A machine learning analysis of reports from refugees. PLOS ONE, 12(5), e0177617. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0177617
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Lamothe, C. (2020, March 30). Conflict Avoidance Doesn’t Do You Any Favors. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/conflict-avoidance#characteristics