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People Don’t Outgrow the Effects of Childhood Trauma Just Because They Become Adults


Scrolling through Facebook this morning, I passed a picture someone had posted, which said, “Stop blaming your parents for how you turned out. You’re grown now. Your mistakes are your own. Grow up. Forgiveness is important.”

I think I understand where the creator of the post was coming from, but I also think they must’ve been very under-informed about what childhood trauma actually does to the brain. I’m sure the sentiment behind the statement was to encourage people to take responsibility for their own choices, to work hard to overcome obstacles, and to avoid leaning on emotional crutches.

However, I can’t help but wonder about the life of the person who wrote it.

Maybe they feel free to write those words because they never experienced trauma that rewired the way their brain processes emotion. Or maybe they felt justified because their own children have made negative claims against them as a parent. Or, perhaps, they genuinely know people who take advantage of their sad stories so they think it applies to everyone who talks about childhood pain.

I don’t know, but I can tell you the post didn’t consider all the people who have legitimate, residual hurt from when they were kids.

More often than not, the way people act in the first decade of adulthood can be pretty well attributed to how they were raised. These behaviors include the positive habits our parents taught us in childhood (whether intentionally or inadvertently) and the negative habits. This isn’t even limited to negativity that resulted in trauma — just negative habits, in general.

For example…

— I don’t make household chores a part of my daily routine because I wasn’t really made to do chores when I was a kid. Am I angry with my parents about that? Nope. But it affected how I prioritize my life as an adult. Could I teach myself how to be more disciplined in that area? Yep. But it goes against the grain of what feels right to me.

— My dad isn’t very emotionally expressive because he grew up in a family that didn’t hug, say “I love you,” or really talk about their feelings.

— My mom struggles with self-worth because of messages that were sent to her in childhood.

— My best friend values financial security over relational security because she spent time in and out of foster care as a child.

— Another friend struggles with making healthy food choices because it wasn’t engrained in them as a child.

— A different friend feels a deep sense of shame and embarrassment whenever they don’t do what is “morally” right because of the church they were raised in.

I could go on and on, but the point is that we’re all affected by how we’re raised, and those effects don’t just go away when we turn eighteen. Sometimes they stick with us our entire lives, even after years of therapy and hard emotional work.

When a person’s childhood involves something so negatively impactful that it causes actual emotional trauma, there’s an even greater likelihood that the effects of it will be permanent or long-lasting.

But what qualifies as “trauma?” Is that just a word people use to overdramatize the parts of their lives they don’t like? In the world of psychology, trauma is generally defined as the emotional response the body goes through after someone is exposed to something that is deeply distressing. Not just inconvenient, bothersome, or scary.

Deeply. Distressing.

Oftentimes, when we think of childhood trauma, we think of the more “typical” traumas, such as being physically abused. However, trauma comes in many different forms and can vary in impact from one person to another. It might even come from something that’s only “moderately” distressing but happens consistently for a long period of time… because living in emergency-response mode for an extended period of time also causes the brain trauma.

For one person I know, the smell of marijuana triggers the emergency-trauma-response system in her brain. The smell reminds her of her mother, who severely neglected her as a child. Even after A LOT of therapy, and a lot of years in adulthood, the smell of weed tells her brain that it’s time to go into survival mode.

For others, it’s the slamming of a door. For some, it’s being given the silent treatment. For others, it’s being afraid of running out of food.

When true trauma happens to a person, the brain is physically altered and the biological processes in the body are affected. This isn’t just a psychological theory. It’s been proven in study after study of brain imaging done on those who’ve experienced traumatic events.

The fear center of the brain (the “amygdala”) becomes overstimulated by the trauma, which causes the brain to think it should be afraid all of the time, even when not in danger. In turn, the prefrontal cortex of the brain becomes less able to function properly, which steals the ability to make logical decisions, control impulses, and organize thoughts. Over the course of time, the part of the brain that controls emotions becomes dysregulated, which means the person might feel emotions too strongly, not strongly enough, too often, not often enough, or at inappropriate times.

The brain can even develop scars after experiencing trauma. These scars exist along the neural pathways of the brain, which prevents messages from getting from one place to another. Neural pathways are sort of like the “roads” of the brain, while neurons are like the “cars” that transport messages. When the “road” becomes damaged–maybe sexual abuse in childhood caused the collapse of a massive bridge–then the road is no longer drivable by a neuron/car. Alternative routes, or detours, can be created over time with certain types of therapy, but the road itself can never actually be repaired.

This means that even after a person has reached adulthood and starts learning how to cope with their trauma, they’ll still have damaged pathways in their brain for the rest of their life. There will always be road blocks.

When you think of it that way, it doesn’t really make sense to say, “Stop blaming your parents for how you turned out. You’re grown now.”

Be understanding of how much deeper someone’s story is than what you see on the surface. You have no idea how well they’re doing, in spite of the hand they were dealt.

People Don’t Outgrow the Effects of Childhood Trauma Just Because They Become Adults


W. R. Cummings


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APA Reference
Cummings, W. (2020). People Don’t Outgrow the Effects of Childhood Trauma Just Because They Become Adults. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/childhood-behavioral/2020/02/people-dont-outgrow-the-effects-of-childhood-trauma-just-because-they-become-adults/

 

Last updated: 21 Feb 2020
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