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How childhood trauma affects us as adults

There has been much written about childhood trauma and how we have been raised. It spawned a popular movement known as the inner child where we somehow connect with our inner child to burst through the adaptive techniques we have developed over the course of time.

Some examples I have seen in my practice are 1) Critical families and 2) Chaotic families

Chaotic families

The chaotic family is one where there may be addictions, loss of stability and moving as a result of instability. Growing up in such a family means that as a child you never could be certain of what to expect. Was Mom going to be drunk? Will the police come? There is often violence and fights and as a child you simply do not feel safe. In order to feel safe a child needs a safe place and there are a few common behaviours that occur in children.

The first is the child himself takes on the responsibility of creating order. He or she may take the role of being a caregiver for a younger sibling or may be the one to ensure Mom or Dad stays safe. They are often wise beyond their years and can appear quite calm but this is an adaptive mechanism not the real them. They are serious and find it hard to socialize with other children.

A second common behavior is the child becomes a clown or even truant to take attention away from the drama at home and onto themselves. This is like a rodeo clown who draws the attention of the bull away from the fallen rider and onto themselves.

The third common behaviour is the child who simply checks out. They can have imaginary friends or retreat into their rooms with music or books. They have disengaged from the family and sometimes turn to drugs.

As adults the responsible child remains serious. They are often seen as not being able to have fun. They sometimes marry people who are handicapped so that they can become a caregiver. In terms of careers they are often in the helping professions. Unfortunately many suffer from anxiety and overly developed need for control. They always seem to be in a rush and overplan events or even trips. They are the type of people who have their car trunks full of supplies for every eventuality.

The critical family

This type of family is very rigid and often minimizes or dismisses emotions. As a child growing up in this family you are taught not to be so emotional, to grow up and stop acting like a baby. For sensitive individuals this can be very difficult. Sensitive children need a safe place for their emotions. If they are ridiculed and their hobbies and passions made fun of too often they will either rebel or more typically withdraw and absent themselves from family activities or even school. These are the children who suffer from stomach aches or stress related illnesses. They are extremely anxious but do not know how to relate to others on an emotional level. They cannot express their feelings and have little emotional regulation. They appear clingy and needy and are often the target of bullies in school.

This child, like the child in chaos again does not feel safe. They will look to others for safety and sometimes will engage in dangerous relationships feeling that they are validated and appreciated. As teenagers these children will seek out validation from intimate partners or others and try to find solace through this. Unfortunately they are often the victims of manipulation and end up feeling worse.

Adults from critical families

As an adult many survivors are strangely detached from their emotions. They are guarded in their speech and have a very difficult time admitting how they feel. They minimize or maximize their feelings. They will often say 'it is ok' or they will become overly dramatic about their feelings. Both are attempts to obtain validation. They live in their heads and view emotions as dangerous or somehow childish. If they do express emotions they are often very apologetic as if somehow it is wrong to react.

Common traits in adults

Whether or not you grew up in a critical family or a chaotic family there are some common behavioural patterns in adulthood. The most common I have seen is people who seek to heal the pain is that they frantically go from activity to activity with a sense of urgency when there is none. This is a fear based response from childhood where they would need to be prepared either for criticism or chaos. Adults will fill their calendars and be proud of their busyness. They will not have the capacity to relax and they will not allow themselves to be unguarded. They are terrified of not being prepared and so attempt to fill every waking moment with what they deem is productive.

In terms of relationships they are often serial daters. The chaotic survivors will engage in questionable relationships as if trying to mimic their family life perhaps in order to atone for it.

The critical survivor will look for someone who can support and affirm them. This does not make for healthy relationships.

In short none of us had had ideal childhoods but rather than search for the mythical and elusive inner child, it is far more useful to be aware of our adaptive behaviours as once we are aware we can address them.

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