Can childhood trauma cause PTSD? Absolutely. I tried to convince myself I didn’t have childhood trauma for years. My parents kept a roof over my head and food in my stomach and always told me that “they did their best.”
As an adult, I can look back and say, if that was your best, you should be ashamed. Growing up, I had no sense of safety, which has had an intense impact on my nervous system. I lived in a state of flight-or-flight for my entire life, which has created long-term mental, emotional, and physical health issues.
First and foremost, I want to say that my memories, experiences, and emotions are mine alone. So when I share my stories and how they impacted me, this is my truth. I don’t share anything to harm or disparage anyone; it’s simply to help others learn and grow.
Over the past decade, I have been on a personal development journey to heal and recover. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned.
As you begin to explore how trauma (even covert trauma) has impacted your life, keep in mind that others will want to discredit your experience. Remember, what you experienced is your truth; it doesn’t have to be anyone else’s.
I’m done keeping my mouth shut; as a parent, it is your responsibility to keep your child safe mentally, emotionally, and physically. This means taking a hard look at yourself to see where your shortcomings are and finding ways to heal and grow. As a child, I would beg my mother for a hug when I was filled with suicidal thoughts, and her response was, “I just can’t do that for you.”
For years, I didn’t understand that this was emotional abuse also known as emotional neglect. Withholding emotional support to a child causes deep emotional distress. You are safe to recognize and begin to heal that pain.
It’s important to know that can experience childhood trauma in many forms. Often, we think of child abuse as sexual abuse or physical abuse. Yet, childhood abuse and trauma are much more complex. The effects of trauma are just as complex and can result in everything from anxiety disorders, mental illness, sleep problems, heart disease, behavioral problems, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and so much more.
What does it mean to suffer childhood trauma?
We all experience some level of difficulty growing up so where is the difference between “normal” tough childhood experiences versus early childhood trauma? Childhood trauma is described as serious adverse childhood experiences. 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.”
This could mean a single traumatic event (such as a natural disaster) can trigger childhood trauma. But that’s not necessarily what I’m talking about here. I want to talk about the effects of emotionally immature parents on young children, which causes a lifetime of traumatic experiences.
Emotionally immature parents cause childhood trauma
Author Lindsay C. Gibson coined the term emotionally immature (EI) parents, this phrase is used to describe parents who are unable or unwilling to support their children emotionally. These parents can be controlling, demanding, and unreliable.
To make their children feel bad about themselves, they may use guilt or shame. Low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, trauma, substance use disorders, mental health problems, and interpersonal conflicts can result from having an emotionally immature parent.
Growing up, I always heard from my mother that she gave her up young adult life to raise us. She commanded that we give her respect, attention, and emotional support. I became her confidant at an early age, hearing about her relationship issues with my father.
This enmeshment occurs when a child becomes the parent’s confidant and counselor. In some cases, this involves ‘Emotional Incest‘, where the child is treated as the parent’s intimate partner.
8 Signs you grew up with emotionally immature parents
- Your feelings aren’t heard or validated. Emotionally immature parents can’t even handle their own inner lives, let alone yours. Earlier this year, I expressed concern to my parents for my daughter’s safety when she was in their care. Instead of asking questions to understand my concerns better, I was told, “I’m tired of you treating us this way.” (e.g. expressing my emotions and concerns)
- You feel lonely and unseen around them. Self-absorption and limited empathy of emotionally immature parents make interactions with them feel one-sided. Whenever you try to share something important to you, they’re likely to talk over you, change the subject, talk about themselves, or dismiss what you say.
- They always come first. Do you feel like you aren’t allowed to have emotions, opinions, or even your own interests? With emotionally immature parents, their own interests are elevated to the point that yours are downgraded. They don’t want an equal relationship. Their priority is blind allegiance to their needs. After college, I moved into an apartment, and I shared my happy news on Facebook. I received a seething call from my mother saying, “how dare you put that up on social media without tellin me first.” I instantly felt shame for not putting her first and considering my own excitement.
- They don’t respect your boundaries. To an emotionally immature parent, boundaries are rejection. They overstep and disrespect their child’s personal boundaries as a form of control because, in their minds, you are a possession.
- They don’t respect your individuality. An emotionally immature parent sees you as an extension of them. Their view is that you should obey and follow commands without question. After college, when I moved out to live on my own, I started a new job, and I needed my birth certificate in order to be hired. I called home, and my mother told me, “No, that’s mine.” She refused to give me my birth certificate. It was another means of control of my life.
- You lose emotional autonomy. Because emotionally immature parents see you as an extension of themselves, they disregard your inner world. Your feelings are judged and even ignored. In my case, I was constantly belittled and bullied by my parents for being overly sensitive. I was constantly told that I needed to have thicker skin. So for years, I pushed down the pain and pretended to be okay, and years later, I ended up in the hospital for complex post-traumatic stress disorder.
- They will find ways to kill your joy. They can’t stand seeing anyone else doing better and are quick to deflate your dreams.
- They won’t admit when they’ve made a mistake. Emotionally immature parents will place the blame back on the child. They will gaslight and manipulate you into believing it was your fault, to begin with. For me, the best apology I got was, “I’m sorry you took it that way.” This is not an apology, this is gaslighting.
Enmeshment trauma and growing up without your individuality
Childhood enmeshment trauma is defined as a loss of autonomy and disregard for personal boundaries. Enmeshment has the purpose of creating emotional power and control within a family. In our family, the control was in the hands of my mother. If she were challenged at any point, it would lead to massive outbursts, verbal and physical. I regularly heard about extended family drama, including domestic violence, all by the time I was a teenager. When she would get upset, I felt like I needed to emotionally support her. But no one was there for me.
When I would go to family gatherings (which happened often), I remember feeling so incredibly out of place. Visitors were NOT welcomed with open arms. In fact, my husband was harassed and bullied (yes, outright harassed and bullied) by my uncles. I thought this was normal. Of course, it made me feel uncomfortable and embarrassed, but that’s “what family does.” We were all indoctrinated to believe the family was everything and the only thing. This meant family could abuse you, and you should just accept it.
5 Signs of Enmeshment Trauma
- You didn’t feel comfortable disagreeing with a parent. Growing up, you didn’t feel emotionally safe disagreeing with your parents, so you expect that disagreeing with someone as an adult won’t be any different.
- Difficulty in relationships. You either take on a caregiver role or become avoidant of relationships because you don’t want to feel smothered.
- An absence of self-identity. An individual suffering from enmeshment trauma may know exactly what to do to make other people happy but can’t do the same for themselves.
- Struggling to distinguish feelings. It’s difficult for you to know your feelings from their feelings. Oftentimes you have a hard time knowing what feelings are yours and what feelings are theirs.
- Lack of self-esteem. You struggle to stand up and assert yourself in situations because it causes guilt and shame.
DID YOU KNOW?
According to the CDC, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood. Adverse Childhood Experiences impact lifelong health and opportunities. Did you know 61% of adults had at least one adverse childhood experience and 16% had 4 or more types of ACEs.
What is PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) & C-PTSD (Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder)?
My goal is to explain PTSD and C-PTSD in layman’s terms. There is a lot of overlap between them. I will not claim to be an expert on the medical diagnostic requirements for each. This is for informational purposes so you can dig deeper if necessary. PTSD usually occurs after a single traumatic event, while CPTSD is associated with repeated trauma
PTSD is a mental health condition caused by witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event. The symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, and uncontrollable thoughts.
After experiencing traumatic events, most people usually adjust and cope better with time. The symptoms of PTSD may worsen, last for months or years, and interfere with your functioning on a day-to-day basis.
C-PTSD is characterized by PTSD and additional symptoms, such as instable emotional responses and anger or distrust toward the world.
Signs & Symptoms of PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder)
- Recurring, distressing memories of the trauma
- Avoiding places, activities, or people that remind you of the trauma
- Negative feelings about yourself, others, or the world
- A constant state of alertness to danger (hyperactive flight response)
Signs & Symptoms of Complex PTSD (C-PTSD)
All the signs listed above plus
- Feeling uncontrollable emotions such as anger or sadness.
- Feeling guilt or shame, to the point that you feel entirely different from other people.
What comes next if you’ve suffered from trauma or abuse?
The effects of childhood trauma go far beyond what can be shared here. This is really the tip of the iceberg.
Just know that if you suffered any sort of abuse or trauma, you have a higher risk factor for mental health disorders, meaning it’s incredibly important to find the right help. There are so many different treatment options that can help you heal, including cognitive-behavioral therapy, EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), and Cognitive processing therapy (CPT) just to name a few.
Contact a mental health expert if you or a family member need help.
If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States. The Lifeline is available for everyone, is free, and is confidential. DIAL 988.