How To Recognize If Your Childhood Trauma Is Affecting You As An Adult (& How To Heal)
The past doesn’t always stay where it should.
If you experienced childhood trauma, it may come as a surprise that the traumatic problems you had when you were little are still present when you’re an adult.
You may worry that your childhood trauma will ruin your happiness, relationships, or even other professional areas of your life. Perhaps you don’t know where to start to learn how to heal.
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 sixty-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 for themselves.
The problem is, there’s only so much you can do all by yourself. That’s why the deepest effects of childhood trauma often go “unresolved.”
You might ask: “Even if I’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.
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.
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 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.
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.”
What causes trauma in childhood?
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.
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: neglect, loss of a parent, serious childhood illness, a learning disability, too many siblings, detached, emotionally unavailable, or anxious parents, your parents had childhood trauma.
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.
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.
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.
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 20s, this is a vulnerable time. You may fear closeness because closeness and need signify possible loss.
Most unresolved childhood trauma affects self-esteem and creates anxiety.
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.
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.
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.
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.
An unreachable parent 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, or 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.
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 it affect you as an adult?
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 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.
Can childhood trauma be healed?
Yes, unresolved childhood trauma can be healed. 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 at first.
- All feelings need to be allowed, encouraged, and heard. Those feelings might be fear, terror, deep sadness, and anger.
- Your therapy needs to unfold at your pace. 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.
You don’t have to live with the upsurge of symptoms that leak out under stress or unpleasant reminders. When you have this kind of therapy and can give yourself the time you need, you will heal from unresolved childhood trauma.