Recognizing Childhood Trauma

The term “childhood trauma” may stir up different emotions in you. You might feel cautious in referring to your experiences with this label. Yes, childhood was not a happy time, but does it count as “traumatic?” On the other hand, you might feel clear about this label. You are aware that childhood sucked. There were plenty of horrible moments, and without a doubt, you were left feeling scarred.

So, what exactly is childhood trauma? Why do people raised in similar circumstances grow up with very different perspectives of an event? How come you’re not as overwhelmed as your siblings when you went through the exact same situation? How can you tell if your past is affecting you today?

I hope this post will provide some clarity to these questions.

What is trauma?

Trauma is the negative beliefs, emotions and physical distress we become burdened with after surviving an awful experience. Trauma is the meaning we make of these painful events. These burdens shift how we see ourselves, our relationships, and the world around us. How “awful” an experience seems varies for each person. The following questions demonstrate some factors that can change an experience from manageable to traumatic:

Ask yourself the following:

Childhood trauma. Experiencing and witnessing traumatic events.
  • How old were you when these traumatic events happened?
  • How often did you experience emotionally painful events while growing up?
  • Were you scared for your safety or the safety of your loved one?
  • How did you make sense of things? Were questions left unanswered?
  • Who was around to help you? What level of community and supports were available?
  • How long did it take before the world felt “normal” again?
  • What other inequities did you have to manage during this time (e.g. health, low income)?

The same situation that is considered traumatic to one person may feel manageable to another. Trauma is subjective in this way. Age, support systems, community resources, number of traumatic events, and physical safety are just a few factors that can impact one’s experience of childhood trauma.

Is it traumatic “enough”?

Big T traumas: war, natural disasters, sexual abuse. Treating and recognizing childhood trauma

In trauma-informed therapy, we often use the terms “Big T” and “little t” trauma. Big T trauma refers to big ticket events that no one would question as damaging and painful. It’s the events you see on the news and social media that are objectively awful. We’re talking about events like war, natural disasters, murders, and sexual abuse.

Little t traumas, on the other hand, refer to the smaller scale events that leave a mark on our system. We hurt and react when we think back to these moments, but not everyone would label these experiences as distressing. Little t traumas can include: witnessing fights in your neighbourhood, experiencing endless sarcasm from your parents, or loneliness in high school. These little t moments are subjectively awful. But, because they are not quite as obvious as Big T events, they tend to get minimized. While little t traumas create emotional scars, they are often dismissed or pushed away. Individuals with numerous little t traumas may feel anxious and insecure without recognizing the influence trauma plays in their current emotional well-being.

At the end of the day, when trauma happens as a child, we don’t question whether it’s Big T or little t events. We just know it’s horrible and we feel awful about it. As kids, our minds are set up to be egocentric. It’s not personal; it’s a developmental fact. We look at the world from our eyes and only see our influence in a situation. Irrespective of Big T or little t events, kids personalize. They question who they are, what they did, and their level of responsibility in having “caused” this awful event. They don’t recognize the flaws of adults. Instead, they make up stories about how they pushed the adult to act in a horrible way. For kids, it doesn’t matter whether it is traumatic “enough”. If it hurts, a child walks away carrying that emotional burden.

Is it PTSD?

Childhood trauma takes place during the early years of our lives. If addressed (e.g. through nurturing and support, healing in the home, processing through therapy), it can get better. If ignored, these adverse childhood experiences can exacerbate to mental health struggles like PTSD. There are several persistent symptoms that need to be present with a diagnosis of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. However, any one of these features can influence your sense of safety and well-being.

Symptoms of PTSD:

Types of SymptomsExamples of Experiences:
Persistent re-experiencing of the traumanightmares, unwanted memories, emotional distress, flashbacks, unwanted thoughts, unwanted reminders, physical reactions
Persistent avoidance of the traumaavoidance of reminders and thoughts related to the trauma
Persistent negative thoughts and feelingsdifficulty remembering key details about the trauma, negative thoughts about oneself, negative thoughts about the world, blame of self/others for causing the trauma, mood changes, less interest in pleasurable activities, feeling alone/isolated
Persistent high reactivity and alertnessirritability, aggression, risky behaviours, hypervigilance, increased startle reactions, difficulty concentrating, sleep disturbance

How do we survive childhood trauma?

Irrespective of how awful we feel after trauma, we still keep living. When we walk away from traumatic events, we learn to protect ourselves through whatever means possible.

Internal Family Systems therapy recognizes that our subconscious gets divided into different parts during a traumatic experience. This is a normal and adaptive process. Our mind starts to compartmentalize and split in order to cope.

During a traumatic event, there are parts of us that become burdened with negative beliefs and emotions. For example, these parts feel overwhelmed with shame, vulnerability, self-hatred or guilt. These parts may hold negative beliefs, such as: “I cannot protect myself, I am a disappointment, or I cannot trust anyone.”

firefighter and manager parts in IFS help to protect exiled feelings and emotions. Coping with childhoot trauma.

Because these are painful emotions and beliefs, we try and push them away. Other parts of our subconscious help to avoid thinking about these painful parts so that we can function in our daily life. They protect by preventing us from getting triggered or soothing us once we have been triggered.

Our system finds unique and creative ways to protect. For example, if you learned that other people are not safe, your system may protect by avoiding social connections, turning down dates or never asking for help. Unfortunately, when these burdens get triggered (e.g. your classmate makes an insensitive comment), your mind finds ways to self-soothe. This could be done through hours of playing video games, becoming explosive or angry, or numbing out through substances. While our protective parts attempt to help, they often create new consequences.

We don’t stop protecting ourselves in this way once the traumatic event is over. We are often triggered. Any moment that shame, vulnerability or some semblance of our traumatic experience shows up, our protective parts react. The only way to stop these patterns from taking over is to address the childhood trauma.

How do we treat childhood trauma?

Treating trauma goes well beyond a small paragraph in a blog post. Healing can come in various forms, and should include both personal and systemic changes. Some ways to treating childhood trauma include:

treating childhood trauma through personal and systemic change
  • Improving parent-child relationships: e.g. repair past injuries, apologizing for harm done, receive parenting support.
  • Increasing access to positive role models: e.g. through peer mentorship programs
  • Creating healthier communities through systemic changes (e.g. addressing racist, homophobic or ableist policies)
  • Improving neighbourhood safety
  • Improving access to social services (e.g. education, transportation, medical)
  • Better access to trauma-informed care (e.g. ease of entering rehabilitation and addictions services, availability for mental health support).
  • Teaching and practicing social and emotional skills (e.g. repairing conflicts, learning how to calm down)
  • Participating in health-promoting activities (e.g. access to nutritious meals, encouragement for physical activities)
  • Participating in therapy
  • Practicing self-compassion

Reach out

Therapy is one form of healing path for childhood trauma. Through use of trauma-informed therapies like Internal Family Systems or EMDR, we can work through old wounds in a safe and effective manner.

If you are curious about the above information or would like support processing your own traumatic experiences, reach out.

Kasi Shan, MSW, RSW
Kasi Shan, MSW, RSW

Kasi Shan Therapy is located in Kitchener, Ontario. She offers in-person and online appointments supporting individuals with struggling with trauma and perinatal mental health.