“It’s not like it’s a big deal. So, my mom worked a lot. It was the 80s.” My client shrugged and dropped her head. Her body language didn’t convey that her story was no big deal.
It told me she carried a lot of shame and rejection about her mother’s lack of involvement in her upbringing. This is indicative of symptoms of childhood trauma in adults and how we may often repsond to it.
This client was raised by grandparents while her mother worked long hours and multiple jobs. And while she would never admit it, the abandonment she felt from her absent mother reverberated through her self-concept, her relationships, and her life.
In today’s buzzword-frenzied society, mental health and mental health challenges can become watered-down versions of the nuanced topics they are. When we talk about trauma, often people associate it with tremendous difficulty or having a dramatic brush with death.
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Symptoms of Childhood Trauma in Adults
While these things are traumatic and can be life-altering, these aren’t the only experiences that can cause lasting damage to the way we perceive and respond to the world. In fact some of what our society has normalized as typical childhood reality can be internalized trauma that impacts us well into adulthood, causing some of those symptoms of childhood trauma in adults. Let’s take a deep look at some of the symptoms of childhood trauma in adults, the ways in which it manifests, and the overall impact trauma can have on our lives.
ACEs, or Adverse Childhood Experiences, are events in a child’s life that impact their development. ACEs include events such as experiencing or witnessing violence and abuse in their homes, experiencing neglect, or having a family member who struggles with mental health or substance misuse.
These experiences can lead to difficulty with attachment, a lack of safety and security, and future chronic health conditions, which are all symptoms of childhood trauma. And while this all seems daunting; ACEs are actually common with one in six children experiencing four or more Adverse Childhood Experiences before the age of eighteen.
What is not common is being able to recognize symptoms of childhood trauma in adults, especially for yourself. To learn more about ACEs and their impact on a person’s development you can visit The Centers for Disease Control and Preventions’ website.
The long-lasting impact of childhood trauma can manifest in various ways throughout adulthood, which is why I am talking so much about the symptoms of childhood trauma in adults. Unwanted behaviors such as overeating, overspending, or other risky behaviors are often the direct result of unresolved negative experiences.
For example, in an attempt to soothe an overstimulated or anxious nervous system, an adult might reach for a sweet treat or an alcoholic beverage. While there is nothing wrong with enjoying either one of those things, if we are over-indulging in an attempt to avoid facing difficult emotions, then we are sabotaging our mental wellness by refusing to meet the need underneath the behavior.
Disconnecting from the body is a common response to physical trauma that may have made the body an unsafe place for you to be. If that is the case, checking out will not help you address the hurt you experienced and may only make it worse in the long run. I see this often with my clients as one of the symptoms of childhood trauma in adults.
Behavior is always purpose-driven. We humans love to pursue pleasure and avoid pain and will often go to great lengths to meet those needs. Social media is a good example of this phenomenon in our everyday world.
The validation one gets from the likes and comments on various platforms lights up those pleasure centers in the brain like a Christmas tree. On top of that, the immediacy with which we can access the approval and validation of others is astounding. Combined with the mind-numbing escape from reality that social media offers even those who don’t post content, it is a perfect storm for repressing unresolved internal conflict.
Some other examples of self-defeating behaviors that can be symptoms of childhood trauma in adults, might include an inability to say “no” to others or even yourself. Poor boundaries often start as a way for us to meet an underlying need for validation or satisfaction, but quickly turn into harmful situations when we can no longer distinguish between what we truly want and what we are willing to do for love.
Have you ever said “yes” when what you really wanted to say was “no?” This is an example of poor boundaries with others. Think back to that time and why you agreed even though you genuinely did not want to do so.
Sometimes we don’t honor our boundaries with others so they will like us but sometimes it runs much deeper than that. In abusive relationships, boundaries can be blurred in an attempt to stay safe. Again, these are all symptoms of childhood trauma in adults.
No matter the reason behind boundary crossing, it is a form of self-abandonment that has lasting repercussions for all parties. If you want to understand more about the importance of setting boundaries and why you should set boundaries, click here to read Why Set Boundaries (You Teach People How to Treat You).
To Not Know Who You Are
Having our locus of identity, the place from which we draw our understanding of self, external to ourselves creates a sort of identity crisis. When you don’t know who you are, you will believe whatever other people tell you about yourself.
Most of the time when others are telling you about yourself, it is a projection of their deepest insecurities. Projection is when someone feels something about themselves, such as “I am not good enough” or “I am stupid” and puts those feelings onto you so they don’t have to face that negative self-talk.
They may directly tell you that you are not good enough, or that you are stupid, or it may be more covert than that. The other person may passive-aggressively suggest you are those things, and you believe them when you don’t have a strong sense of self.
Positive self-talk is so important in this case. You get to decide who you believe you are. You do. When you have made up your mind to believe positive things about yourself, no amount of projection can convince you that you are something you’re not. You are armed with self-awareness, and you can spot, and reject, the projections of others.
Understanding Who You Are
At this point, you may be wondering, HOW do I decide who I am and what I stand for? HOW do I defend myself against the projections and inaccurate identifications of others?
Well pull up a chair and let’s chat about it. It is helpful to know what your values are when deciding who you are. You can access a values exploration online at PsychCentral’s website here.
By exploring your values, how you feel about certain things and how passionate you are about them, you set the foundation for your identity. Your values may change over time, and that’s ok.
If our thoughts and values did not evolve with us, we would be in a stage of arrested development and unable to grow. Checking in with yourself and what your values look like from season to season in your life will help you feel secure in your sense of self as you mature through the different phases of life.
Positive Self-Talk and Self-Awareness
Through this self-awareness you can begin to develop the positive affirmations specific to your needs and season in life. Some of my favorites are “I am safe”, “I approve of myself”, and my absolute favorite to calm my anxiety is “All is well.”
Being in touch with your feelings and thoughts is another way to be more self-aware. Having insight into why you respond to situations and people the way you do will help you confidently move forward into any interaction.
When you understand the underlying drive behind your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors you are in control of your circumstances, not the other way around. How empowering to know yourself on such a deep level?
My personal therapist has always helped me examine my thoughts and feelings, so I have more personal power and decision-making authority over my life. I cannot recommend counseling enough.
Trauma and Its Effects
If personal therapy seems like a big, scary leap to you, you aren’t alone. I believe that doing your own personal exploration is an effective tool that can help get you started on your healing journey. It is possible to begin recongnzing symptoms of childhood trauma in adults to heal and better understand yourself and how you respond to life.
Bessel van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score takes a deep dive into how trauma continues to show up in our lives over and over again until we do the work to heal it. In his book he says it is important for us to be able to integrate traumatic memories in a way that we can feel safe and understand that even though the body continues to experience the trauma, we are safe in the present moment. His book offers a wonderful guide on how to safely reconnect to your body after a trauma or series of traumas.
Another personal favorite is Louise Hay. Her positive affirmation recordings have been life-changing for me. In a previous entry, I mentioned her book Mirror Work, and I am going to mention it again.
It is worth repeating. I have used it to create exercises for my clients that help them uncover specific negative self talk and together we have created the most beautiful, custom-designed positive affirmations that are just for them.
If you struggle with unwanted behaviors or feel out of control, it is possible that unresolved trauma may be at the root of those issues, that are manifesting as symptoms of childhood trauma in adults. Like we have previously explored here, reading books about the topic, creating positive self-talk statements, and seeking counseling can all help you begin your healing process if you are beginning to recognize symptoms of childhood trauma in adults, namely yourself.
Trauma work is highly involved and takes time, but these baby steps are all steps in the right direction. As Lao Tzu said in the Dao de Ching “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”
Author: Dr. Erica Montgomery, Ph.D, LPC
Dr. Erica Montgomery completed her Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision at the University of Mississippi and now serves as Clinic Director of the Counselor Education training clinic for UM. She has nearly 15 years of experience working with individuals and families to help them heal their deepest hurts and live fulfilled lives. Dr. Montgomery pursues personal growth goals daily to continue working toward her truest self and reprogram some of her own “not good enough” thinking. Her belief is that we are always growing and discovering the highest version of ourselves.
This site is only intended for people who are truly willing to look at themselves with an open mind and have the ability to truly be vulnerable with themselves and others. Please understand that this site is in NO WAY THERAPEUTIC ADVICE. However, this site can be very beneficial in learning the causes of your Not Good Enough Stuff. This site is not intended to provide or replace medical or psychiatric treatment. Mary Beth HIGHLY RECOMMENDS finding a licensed therapist to help you process the information from this site and all that you learn about yourself. Visit Psychology Today to find a licensed therapist in your area.