It is likely that you are in a relationship with someone, or have a family member who has experienced childhood trauma. It is not likely that you think about that when you are trying to communicate to them or understand how they are communicating to you. About 60% of adults report some form of adverse experience in childhood. Not all traumatic experiences are created equal, so when we speak of childhood trauma, some distinctions need to be considered. All childhood trauma is terrible and can have specific long-lasting effects into adulthood. They impact a person’s ability to love, laugh, learn, and live a fulfilling life. With that said, I want to distinguish what is meant by the term “Developmental Trauma.” If you are struggling to relate to someone you love who has experienced a rough childhood, the following paragraphs may shed light.
Experts agree that Developmental Trauma is caused by events that occur between the ages of 0–3 years old, while some stretch the period to 5 years. Children who experience severe abandonment, neglect, and persistent physical/sexual abuse in toxic environments during this period face a particularly uphill identity crisis. Spouses and loved ones of adult survivors of developmental trauma, who struggle to understand how their loved one may treat them should be aware of certain concepts.
Early Childhood: It’s All About the Brain
It is relatively common knowledge that the brain is growing its fastest during those first formative years of childhood. In particular, the brain produces a wealth of synapses that peak in production around the age of one. A synapse is a point of contact between two brain cells. It is a gap through which neurotransmitters diffuse and pass an impulse. In other words, the brain is reactively on fire and more receptive to environmental influence than any additional time in life. Everything is new, stimulating, and foreign to the developing child’s brain. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on the hand that was dealt, and due to the child having no self-soothing ability, they are entirely dependent on the environment’s provisions. This environment, which the child has no comprehension of, is created by the caregiver’s responses to the child’s needs, as well as the regulated nature of that parent’s own nervous system. Through a process called Co-regulation, the parent’s stress system will be the blueprint for the child’s world view, distress tolerance, and is what structures the lens through which the child will experience their future.
Getting Wired for the Future
The number of synapses that are open up to the environment is more than there ever will be. As the saying goes, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” These firings, reinforced through whatever is consistent in the environment, will become the neural pathways that become our automatic physical and emotional responses. Because they are deep brain areas at work, they become our automatic reactions or gut responses in the future. These responses will become the bedrock for who we think we are, the foundation of our identity. Slowly and gradually, throughout development, a process called Synaptic Pruning takes place. The synapses that are not used and reinforced by the environment will die off, which means that the ones used the most will become stronger and stick around. So if your brain is forced to maintain a stressed state for prolonged times, you will have a stress response that inaccurately responds to future distress. So this is why the environmental feedback we obtain during this period is crucial because we are at our most vulnerable when the brain is organizing to become what it becomes.
Who Am I?
There is a relationship between our expressions of ourselves and the level of safety we feel in the world, which in turn translates into our ability to relate to others and have mutually satisfying relationships. These early developmental years are when these automatic processes are being solidified and will be the strengths and weaknesses we bring into our self-directed adulthoods. If you love a developmental trauma survivor or you are one, you should be aware of the previously described developmental processes because it is likely that the reactions you are seeing are the feelings that were unresolved in their childhood experience. This type of insight can contribute to self-awareness, as well as understanding on the part of the family member who is trying to relate to the person.
Loved ones frequently are on the receiving end of the survivor’s repetitive, self-destructive behavior, abuse, or lack of concern for how they treat others or themselves; this might be defended with statements such as, “That’s just how I am.” Because these impulsive reactions to environmental, in particular relational stress, is so natural to them they have no other point of reference. We should understand that due to underlying neuro processes, that became hardwired by their system’s having experienced overwhelming and unrelieved distress during the most sensitive period of development, they experience their reactions to the environment as justified. This causes a lack of empathy in understanding how their behavior impacts the environment. Like children, they are still reacting to stimuli, and have very little sense of self-control. Others who may have experienced trauma later in childhood, would otherwise have a healthier foundation and can distinguish in themselves a reactive state vs. healthy self.
At the Mercy of the State
Sometimes after experiencing a conflict with our loved one, we say things like, “They are so bi-polar,” or it’s like they have “multiple personalities.” Trauma can cause what is called “State Dependence.” State dependence basically means that everything I am experiencing is based on the mood I am in as if I was never not in that particular mood or experiencing things differently. For instance, if I am in a depressed mood than “Everything sucks, and everything has always sucked, and there is nothing I can do.” However, the next day, I may be feeling chipper and act like nothing was ever wrong the previous day. This is a confusing, unsettling, and vicariously traumatic experience for those in close relationship to the survivor because moods can shift by the hour, day, week, or month in inconsistent patterns. The survivor is not even aware and experiences these moods as if they are always like that, disconnected from previous states of reality.
Relating to someone who is state-dependent is complicated and causes the experience of “Walking on eggshells.” Often this feels like a prison that the spouse or loved one exists in. Whether the person is unwilling to take part in psychotherapy, or couples counseling, the spouse should seek out their own therapist to begin work on setting boundaries, strategizing around self-care, and possible communication strategies. This is very difficult for many people to endure, but it is worth making every effort to save the relationships.
Who Can I Trust?
Early childhood trauma causes people to be unable to trust and use their feelings as a guide. They do not trust them because they have not been able to derive consistently relatable meaning from them in order to tie them to their identity. They make no sense, and this is because their attachment figures provided no consistent response during times of unregulated stress in those first few years. In other words, the primary caregivers responded to the child based on their own needs and not on the expressed demand of the child when the child was most vulnerable. They struggle, therefore, to accurately express these feelings in a prosocial or pro-relational manner that allows them to connect with the world and the culture as well as obtain the social support and validation they need to feel safe. Because the stress system is so heavily involved during these states, the child develops changes in the stress regulating system of the body. They are either on high alert always or shut down.
In turn, their inconsistent or inaccurate expression of themselves produces rejection and the reinforcement of the abandonment felt during childhood because friends and family will have trouble relating. Any negative feedback is seen as a full rejection and never merely constructive. This corners family members and loved ones into having to accept how they are treated, or they themselves will risk setting off the fight or flight system of the survivor. Here again, we are “Walking on Eggshells.” This heightened state of activation in the loved one is unhealthy and needs to be attended.
Communication in close relationships is difficult because necessary feedback immediately triggers shame in the individual. Rather than receive the social input that relationships typically provide, and humbly make adjustments, the self-protective ego of the individual will not let the feedback resonate. These perceived rejections reinforce a broken identity of no self-value, which is why therapy and possibly medications are in order. Accepting feedback is akin to experiencing complete brokenness. With no history of repair ever learned, they are left with survival as the only answer as if they were protecting themselves from Death.
Why Communication is Tough
On a healthy developmental trajectory, our cognitive brain kicks in around age 3. We begin to learn words to associate with these abstract internal experiences and can ask for what we want and need. Fortunately, most people do experience “Good Enough,” caregiving during this time, which allows for them to at least obtain a commonly understood feeling vocabulary, in turn providing for a general ability to share relational experiences with others. These words become a valuable resource to our lives and the ability to self-regulate our emotions, reach out for support, and learn lessons about our self throughout the lifespan.
Early childhood trauma happens in a preverbal state where we do not necessarily have the cognitive capacity to learn healthy coping and emotional regulation. They struggle to come back to baseline after frustrating experiences, even warranted ones where there are solutions. Individuals who are not able to understand their inner world and have had their distress linger unresolved may have developed what is called Alexithymia. Alexithymia is both a lack of words for feelings and a lack of symbolic meaning for somatic (body) states. Their bodily sensations and emotional feelings do not work together, contributing to a loss of self-identity, disconnection from a sense of self. Though the person has the ability to express themselves cognitively, the problem lies in the disconnect that exists between their lower brain areas and their thinking brain. What comes out in their explanation of reality doesn’t seem to make sense to anyone else.
Developmental trauma can be a disabling condition and requires understanding on the parts of loved ones. However, unlike autism, physical disabilities, and other conditions which we empathize with more comfortably, developmental trauma shows itself in more stigmatizing social ways such as addictions, inconsistent relational patterns, narcissistic, and anti-social or criminal behavior. With increased awareness and understanding, we can learn to relate better to survivors when we are in relation to them. In relating to them, we will be challenged to grow more patient, compassionate, and empathetic as well as learn to set boundaries and take care of ourselves. This will translate into better health for individuals and society.
Previously published on Medium.com.
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