There are a lot of complicated factors to consider when it comes to dealing with childhood trauma. Many people don’t even know they are experiencing symptoms of childhood trauma until it affects their own children, and it can be challenging to navigate as you try to practice mindful parenting.
Part of the reason this can happen is because of how trauma is often suppressed and forgotten until it’s triggered. People dealing with trauma can often react without knowing the root cause of that reaction. When childhood trauma goes untreated for too long, it can lead to generational trauma.
Generational trauma happens when parents pass on their trauma to their children. The cycle can repeat with future generations who then pass that trauma on to their own children, on and on, spanning generations. A history of generational trauma is incredibly difficult to recognize and understand when normalized throughout your family and life experiences.
Fortunately, the conversation around childhood and generational trauma is becoming more common and less stigmatized. The reality is that trauma can be measured in many forms but still affects people differently. Many symptoms are overlooked when there are more pressing issues associated with childhood trauma. This is why it’s so important to break that cycle and get to the root of the issue by treating childhood trauma.
What is a traumatic childhood?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, childhood trauma is defined as “The experience of an event by a child that is emotionally painful or distressful, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects.”
Some common examples of traumatic childhood events include¹:
- Chaos or dysfunction in the house (such as domestic violence or a parent experiencing a mental illness, substance abuse, or incarceration)
- Death of a loved one
- Emotional abuse or neglect
- Physical abuse or neglect
- Separation from a parent or caregiver
- Sexual abuse
- Stress caused by poverty
- Sudden and/or severe medical condition
- Violence (at home, at school, or in the surrounding community)
Although childhood trauma isn’t always a direct result of parenting, our caregivers can further impact our ability to cope and recover as children. Because the brain is in a constant state of development well into our twenties, we rely heavily on our caregivers to support us in understanding, regulating, and practicing our emotions.
If our caregivers cannot meet our needs during and after a traumatic event or cause traumatic events, we instead have to rely on our limited understanding to cope. This can result in a lot of unhealthy coping mechanisms that continue far beyond the initial traumatic event.
These unhealthy responses may serve us in the moment, but as they persist throughout our lives, they can affect how we regulate our emotions and react to others. The distress of traumatic events during childhood combined with the lasting effects culminate as childhood trauma.
What are the signs of childhood trauma?
Whether you are aware of your childhood trauma or not, recognizing these symptoms in yourself can help you realize a need for treatment. So, what exactly does childhood trauma do to a person, and what does it look like?
Some of the more common signs and symptoms of childhood trauma in adults are:
- PTSD: Experiencing PTSD can mean reliving the event(s), withdrawal or avoidance, anger, depression, or anxiety, trust issues, or self-destruction.
- Attachment and relationship issues: If you experienced inconsistent or unhealthy care from the adults you trusted as a child, you might form unhealthy attachment styles in your relationships. This can look like avoidance, anxiety, codependency, or disorganization. You may also struggle to develop and maintain friendships or purposefully seek out unhealthy ones.
- Difficulty regulating emotions: If your emotions often seem uncontrollable or you have difficulty expressing them altogether, this can be a sign of neglect or improper treatment towards these emotions. You may overreact in certain scenarios, displaying an overwhelming amount of aggression, anger, joy, sadness, etc.
- Physical health complications: While these symptoms can be more challenging to recognize as a sign of childhood trauma, they can appear in connection with other emotional struggles, and trauma can be stored in the body. Specific health issues such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, obesity, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are more prevalent amongst those with childhood trauma.
Recognizing that you have symptoms of childhood trauma can sometimes come as a shock, but it’s essential to avoid downplaying the signs. Acknowledging your experience is key in moving forward to identify the root of trauma and begin healing.
What are the different types of trauma?
Knowing the type of trauma you’re experiencing will help you better understand the various ways it impacts your life.
There are three main types of trauma:
- Acute Trauma: Usually, a singular stressful or painful event causes acute trauma. This event is extreme enough to cause long-term emotional and/or physical effects.
- Chronic Trauma: Dealing with long-term, repeated, distressing, or extreme events can cause chronic trauma. If repeated acute trauma is left unaddressed, it can then lead to chronic trauma.
- Complex Trauma: Combined external and internal traumatic events can lead to complex trauma. Usually, this is the result of repeated abusive behavior within relationships across separate occasions.
Different types of trauma can trigger various trauma responses. Regardless of the kind of trauma you’re experiencing, professional treatment is vital to progressing past the events and disrupting generational trauma.
How does childhood trauma affect parenting?
Childhood trauma affects how you regulate your own emotions, which is why it’s so important to teach your children how to regulate their emotions. This process is often easier said than done; even if your coping methods are seemingly healthy, raising children while having internal unresolved childhood trauma can trigger unhealthy parenting habits.
So, how does unresolved trauma affect parenting specifically? Well, when a parent hasn’t dealt with their own childhood trauma, they haven’t had the chance to recognize their response to that trauma to be ineffective or even harmful to others. It’s then likely that these unhealthy habits will be passed to their own children, continuing the cycle of generational trauma.
Unresolved trauma can affect your children in various ways. Our kids may struggle when they observe us:
- Building unhealthy attachment styles
- Not recognizing symptoms or disabilities that can lead to trauma
- Reflectively teaching unhealthy patterns of emotional regulation by overreacting
- Being neglectful or giving a disproportionate response during traumatic experiences
Even if you are aware of your childhood trauma and actively try to avoid the parenting style you were raised in, leaving your trauma untreated and failing to understand your emotional responses can be just as harmful to your children. This isn’t to say that parenting is a right or wrong experience, but recognizing your own trauma responses will allow you to manage them and adequately communicate with your children when issues or mistakes arise.
What is mindful parenting?
Mindful parenting happens when you’ve learned to manage your emotions by responding to a difficult situation rather than reacting to it. It’s natural for everyone to react to stressful situations emotionally, and it’s especially common for those stressors to be heightened when dealing with childhood trauma. But children are not yet aware of their own emotions or how to regulate them. That’s why it’s so important for parents to respond to children’s emotional reactions rather than reflect unhealthy emotions back at them.
By helping your child understand their emotions and how they can properly deal with them, you can go beyond your own childhood trauma and give them a chance to learn healthy emotional control. This prevents your children from forming unhealthy coping mechanisms on their own or determining that you, as a caregiver, are not reliable or safe in distressing situations.
Of course, it can be difficult to take the time to respond to your child mindfully rather than react in every moment. Mindful parenting also involves recognizing when you are emotionally reacting, learning to apologize and correct your behavior by reconnecting with your child, and moving forward with the best intentions.
Addressing Childhood Trauma and Finding Support
It takes a lot of time and energy to recognize your own childhood trauma and to disrupt the cycle of generational trauma, and you should feel proud of yourself for taking these first steps! Your trauma isn’t your fault, but your healing is your responsibility. That being said, you do not have to heal in isolation, and we’re here to support you.
At All Points North Lodge, our clinicians work with clients to develop a custom treatment plan rooted in trauma-informed care. We can help you get to the root of your trauma, learn tools to regulate your nervous system, and help you recognize how to address childhood trauma with mindful parenting as the end goal.
If you want to learn more about trauma therapy, treatment options, and family telehealth sessions, we can help. Start a with one of our care coordinators or reach us via phone at 855-510-4585. We’ll help you take the first steps towards healing as an individual and as a family.
- “What Is Childhood Trauma?” Look Through Their Eyes, Illinois Childhood Trauma Coalition, http://lookthroughtheireyes.org/what-is-childhood-trauma/.
- Ceder, Jill. “Mindful Parenting: How to Respond Instead of React.” The Gottman Institute, 6 Oct. 2017, https://www.gottman.com/blog/mindful-parenting-how-to-respond-instead-of-react/.
- “About Child Trauma.” The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/about-child-trauma.
- “Complex Trauma Effects.” The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/trauma-types/complex-trauma/effects.