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Growing up in a dysfunctional traumatic household can destroy a child’s confidence, self-esteem, and belief in their abilities. What’s worse is that once that child becomes an adult, even if the trauma they experienced in childhood is over, the effects can last a lifetime.
So, what is childhood trauma? Just be clear, being tricked into eating your vegetables isn’t trauma. I’m not talking about feeling upset because your parents didn’t buy you that one toy that you didn’t get when you were 7 or they didn’t spend $200 on new gym shoes that one time when you were 14. I’m talking about the type of trauma that is detrimental to the mind, body, and soul.
Childhood trauma is any experience that is overwhelming, devastating, dangerous, or life-threatening, that evokes fear and emotional distress. It is often referred to as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Childhood trauma includes negative events that occur to a loved one that the child sees or hears about.
Examples of childhood trauma include:
Simply put, if you didn’t experience any of these in your childhood, you got lucky! I (and many others) could tick six items on that list!
At this point, you might be wondering- how does childhood trauma affect your behavior- especially around other people?
Childhood abuse can cause issues in your relationships with friends, family, colleagues, or your significant other. The older you are when the trauma occurred, the less it affects your adult relationships. If you had enough support and encouragement from your parents or caregivers, you are less likely to experience problems in your relationships.
However, if the source of your physical and emotional abuse was your parents or you didn’t get much support, then no doubt you will experience dysfunctional interpersonal relationships.
There are 3 reasons why childhood abuse causes problems in interpersonal relationships. They include:
One way childhood trauma affects relationships is in the way it changes our style of communication. We learn our communication style from childhood based on what we observed in our home environment. So, if you were raised in a home where your parents frequently argued or yelled at each other, you may mirror the same thing in your relationships. You may feel that you need to scream or yell to be heard or taken seriously.
On the other hand, if you grew up in an environment where people hid their negative emotions and anger, you may find it hard to talk about your needs or displeasure in relationships.
If you have been a victim of childhood abuse, you may have developed one of these non-adaptive communication styles:
Passive communicators find it difficult to express their needs or feelings. They avoid speaking up about something that bothers them to avoid conflict. This trauma-induced style of communication can lead to resentment and frequent misunderstandings in relationships.
An example of passive communication would be talking to your daughter about how mad you are about how your son always forgets to take out the trash instead of just telling your son to take out the trash. You keep dropping hints but your son doesn’t pick up on them until you reach your tolerance limit and have an explosive outburst that is out of proportion to triggering unacceptable behavior.
Aggressive communicators express their feelings and needs without consideration for the rights and feelings of others. They speak in a manner that is loud, demanding, overbearing and rude.
This style of communication easily causes violence, frequent yelling matches, negative interactions, and fear in others. It ruins relationships and pushes people away.
An aggressive communication scenario would be when your sister asks to borrow your car for the weekend, and you reply with, “No, don’t be silly, go buy your own damn car.”
Passive-aggressive people pretend to be passive on the surface and then act out their anger in subtle and indirect ways. They have difficulty facing the object of their resentment so they act out their frustration by spreading rumors about the individual or they may sabotage the efforts of the individual.
We form our attachment styles early in childhood based on our early experiences with caregivers. If a child’s needs are sensitively, appropriately, and consistently met, he or she develops a secure attachment style. On the other hand, childhood abuse causes attachment trauma and problems in adulthood relationships.
Childhood traumatic experiences cause insecure attachment styles such as:
Avoidant attachment occurs when a caregiver is insensitive or non-reactive to a child’s distress. A child with an avoidant attachment style avoids expressing their emotions. They may also refrain from going to the caregiver for comfort.
Children that develop this form of attachment style are emotionally unavailable in adulthood relationships.
Anxious attachment happens when a caregiver doesn’t meet a child’s needs consistently and predictably. A child with an anxious attachment style uses neediness and excessive emotional reactions to get a caregiver’s attention.
As an adult, these individuals are needy and insecure in adult relationships. They always seek validation and reassurance.
A disorganized attachment is formed when a caregiver behaves in a frightening or deviant way to a child. The child doesn’t learn any strategies to get attention and comfort.
Children with this form of attachment style end up forming tumultuous relationships in adulthood. The progress of their relationships is uncertain as there are lots of disagreements, highs and lows, violence, and confusion.
People with adverse childhood experiences often develop mental illnesses such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, anxiety, and borderline personality disorder.
Mental illness changes the way you think, feel, act, relate to others, and manage stress. Mental illnesses ruin relationships because they generate a problem-breeding cycle among people who are genuinely trying to have a healthy relationship.
Childhood trauma causes mental illness which affects interpersonal relationships and in turn, an unhealthy relationship exacerbates mental health problems.
Childhood trauma negatively impacts romantic relationships. Little issues can cause you to respond irrationally, and you may tend to do too much or too little in intimate relationships.
Here are a few ways your trauma experience may be sabotaging your love life:
As someone who has survived a traumatic childhood, you are more likely to seek out traumatized people in romantic relationships. If you have been a victim of childhood abuse, your subconscious mind is attracted to the abusive behavior you experienced in childhood.
For example, if you were neglected and abandoned in childhood, you may find that you are attracted to people who are commitment-phobic or emotionally unavailable.
Childhood trauma alters brain chemistry and affects our cognitive development. This means that you may have trouble with rational thinking, emotional regulation, and decision making which makes you settle for less.
You may choose romantic partners that are not a good fit for you. Lack of attention in your childhood can make you get attention-hungry so much that a little attention from anyone (abusive people) gets you over excited, throws you off your self-care routine, and into an abusive relationship or marriage.
You may avoid intimacy or romantic relationships. You may have low-self esteem and self-doubt, thinking that you will never be good enough. You may reason, “If my Dad didn’t think I was good enough, why would anyone else think I am?” So, you avoid romantic relationships, thinking, “I don’t have what it takes to be a good partner to anyone. So why bother?”
You want love, comfort, understanding, and intimacy, but you are afraid of getting too close or being vulnerable. If anyone makes an effort, you subconsciously push them away. By the time you realize what you have done, they are gone and you feel regret. Often, there is a long list of names in the ‘gone people’ book and that’s when you begin to ask yourself, “What is wrong with me?”
If you have been a victim of sexual abuse, you may also have problems with sexual arousal and desire in romantic relationships.
It may be difficult to trust your partner and rely on them. You may conclude that no one is reliable and that they may abandon or neglect you like your caregivers did when you were a child. You may find it difficult to accept compliments or believe that your partner truly loves you. You may become anxious or fear your partner will abandon you.
You could think, “If my Mom didn’t like me enough to stay instead of walking away, why would anyone stay or want to be with me?” This could quickly spiral down into stalking, paranoia, controlling, and abusive behavior.
Below are a few things you can do to begin your healing journey.
To heal from childhood abuse, it’s important to accept what happened and recognize it as trauma. This is the first step to healing and recovery. Acknowledging your traumatic experience will help you to understand your current problems and make sense of your pains.
It’s easy to get into the habit of self-criticism. You may often question why you struggle with engaging in healthy relationships. Please remember whatever happened in your childhood is not your fault. You need to be patient to heal the wounds caused by your childhood trauma. Like a literal wound, you may need to give yourself time to heal. So don’t be too hard on yourself- focus on taking small steps each day.
Reach out to loved ones for comfort and support. You can find a support group where you can share your feelings or experiences and connect with others. Try to accept help from others, they may turn out to be a great support system for you.
It’s important to seek professional help from licensed therapists and coaches, to improve your self-confidence and relationships. A coach can also help you better understand how childhood trauma manifests in your relationships and how to work through it with effective strategies.
You can benefit from a daily self-care routine. Your routine should include activities that cater to your physical, emotional, social, and mental well-being. It would help if you could set time aside each day to attend to your needs. You can do more with your personal and environmental hygiene. Try to eat clean and exercise.
You can also meditate, write about your feelings, and practice mindfulness. If you are into spirituality and religion you can pay more attention to that as well. Sticking to a good self-care routine will help reduce
If you have been trying to figure out why your marriage failed or why most of your relationships have been difficult understand that it is not your fault. Childhood trauma can play a major role in the issues we carry with us into our adulthood. Even though it may seem like you will never get the love, care, and respect that you deserve, don’t give up.
Understanding the link between childhood trauma and relationships and getting the help you need, will lead you to develop healthy interpersonal relationships. Your childhood experiences do not have to define you. You may not have had the opportunity to write the beginning of your story, but you can determine how you want the story to end. Commit to loving yourself, getting the therapy you need, and taking daily actions that help you heal.
Tiffiny has a B.A. in Psychology, and master’s degree in Public Health Education. She worked in consulting for over 16 years, as well as previously owning a fitness and health business. In her personal life, she used personal development, mindset and health strategies to go from being overworked in a demanding corporate career, emotionally drained in a toxic marriage, physically unhealthy, and depressed to becoming an award-winning figure level bodybuilding athlete and entrepreneur. As a women’s empowerment coach, she works to help women get clear on their goals, build confidence, increase self-esteem, take action on their deep desires and create a life they love