How We Respond to Trauma and How to Treat Trauma from Childhood

Childhood trauma is a large encompassing term that can refer to a spectrum of events and interactions. There are a lot of ways to treat childhood trauma. I don’t know that there is “the best way to treat trauma” but there are options. From my research and experience as a therapist that works with trauma there seems to be two smaller but still very large categories under the umbrella of trauma. Researchers have identified a list of events titled “Adverse Childhood Experiences” (ACES). These events include specific instances of abuse, death of a loved one at a young age, natural disasters, or witnessing violence. Here is a more detailed explanation from the Center for Disease Control. There is another category of trauma that seems to me more of a spectrum. It is not a specific event but a general experience that a child lives through.  A child develops ideas about themselves, and the world based on the information from their environment. They develop these ideas based on their age and their temperament (and about a million other factors). For a while these types of traumas were referred to as “big T trauma” and “little t trauma”. Regardless of the approach to understanding or treating trauma, it is fair to say that trauma is generational. We inherit trauma, it is in our bodies, and we pass it along to others unintentionally. A lot of times we pass it on to the people we want to hurt the least. This is why the treatment of trauma and therapy for trauma is so important. We are helping ourselves but we are also protecting the people we care about the most from inheriting this trait.

How do we pass on trauma to others?

Our experience is “normal”.

There is an essay, by David Foster Wallace called “This is Water”. (He alludes to his book The Infinite Jest, I haven’t read it yet. I’m getting there). You can read an article about him here. In this essay and in his commencement speech in 2005 he uses a phrase “How’s the water?”. He is describing a conversation had by some fish. The older fish is aware of the water (the environment) that he is in and the younger fish look at each other and ask “what the hell is water?”  The point here, and I am hoping that I don’t butcher this too much, is that we can be so immersed in our environment that we are not even aware of it anymore. We don’t know how the temperature or the salinity of the water is impacting us, we’ve been swimming around in it our whole lives.  In fact, and I describe it more in my blog on ADHD and Gaslighting, sometimes we are so used to a chaotic life or so used to being treated poorly, that we just accept it as normal. It might not occur to you that what you have experienced was abuse and therefore may continue to behave or accept behavior that is actually quite abusive.

We don’t know any better.

Along the same lines, if we grew up in a chaotic environment or an environment where violence is accepted or the norm. We don’t know that it is possible to have anything different. We don’t know that something different exists and we sure as hell don’t know how to create it or model it for ourselves as adults.  

Think about this mild example (I am guilty of this one myself). Childhood you ask your parent a question. Your parent says “no” with a follow up “because I said so” response. When you are a child, this is infuriating. Life is so unfair. Looking back, you probably realize that your parent was either too exhausted to explain, or the subject was so intricate or difficult to explain that “because I said so” is just easier. As a parent, I totally get it. But no sooner did I utter those words to my child, I facepalmed. I am my mother.

This is a very mild example to illustrate a point. But, consider this, if you witnessed violence as a means of resolving conflict or if you witnessed alcohol or drug abuse as the only means to deal with emotion. It is very reasonable to expect that this is what you will do as an adult. You don’t know better, so how can you do better?

We are triggered and sent into fight or flight mode.

When we experience trauma, we are destined to re-experience it in a just as intense way when we are triggered. When we are triggered, our body goes into fight or flight mode. We react with anger and irritability. Our body processes don’t function like they should. When we are heightened in this way, this is the water that we are creating for those around us. We are in tense, chaotic, anxiety provoking water, and others that are swimming in it are affected by it too.

We are determined that we/our family will have it better than what we had growing up.

We are so preoccupied with not being our parents that we are creating tension in a different way.  We prioritize earning an income and giving our family what we didn’t have growing up.  The thing is, we cannot heal our trauma by not repeating it. The trauma shows up. We may feel the pressure to stay at an awful job because “at least it pays well”. We may lose hours of sleep decorating for a party or be so anxious about the details that we can’t even eat all the amazing food we cooked.  This is another way we create the water that others that we love are swimming in. We don’t do it intentionally and we sometimes we are so focused on NOT being something that we don’t realize what we ARE being.

The process to stop the cycle.

It is not easy. It is the most difficult thing you will do in your life and the most rewarding. I see trauma as a piece of glass. It is sharp and pointy and when we hold it, it cuts us, and we bleed. So, we stuff it into the back of our brains wrapped in duct tape never to see the light of day. We do all sorts of things to keep the memories locked up, but they seep out. It feels so powerless to try everything we can to avoid the pain and yet it shows up anyway.

If trauma is a piece of glass, imagine it being washed in the ocean. As the waves wash over it, it gets polished by the sand. When we bring the trauma out into the light, we are polishing it. It’s still there, it won’t go away. But we don’t have to waste energy keeping it shut in a closet and we don’t have to let it cut us. It washes up to shore occasionally. It doesn’t cut us though. We just hold it, then it goes away again.  When we hold our trauma in a way that is safe, we not only help ourselves, but teach others around us how to cope with their traumas too.

If you would like to talk more about navigating experiences in your life, please reach out.