researcher agrees that early childhood traumas
(i.e. those that happen before the age of six)
lie at the root of most long-term depression
and anxiety, and many emotional and psychological
illnesses. Severe traumas can even alter the
very chemistry and physiology of the brain itself!
Among mental health professionals, and even
some childhood development specialists, there
is sometimes a lack of understanding over exactly
what constitutes childhood trauma.
A seminal 1992
American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) report
defines childhood abuse as "a repeated
pattern of damaging interactions between parent(s)
[or, presumably, other significant adults] and
child that becomes typical of the relationship."
to physical, sexual and verbal abuse, this can
include anything that causes the child to feel
worthless, unlovable, insecure, and even endangered,
or as if his only value lies in meeting someone
else's needs. Examples cited in the report include
"belittling, degrading or ridiculing a
child; making him or her feel unsafe [including
threat of abandonment]; failing to express affection,
caring and love; neglecting mental health, medical
or educational needs."
The AAP also
includes parental divorce in the list of potentially
harmful events which can traumatize a child.
on the AAP's list of factors leading to childhood
trauma benefit from further definition. For
example, what do "belittling" or "degrading"
mean in terms of a child's development? What
actions--or inactions--on the part of parents
or child carers would lead little Tommy to feel
degraded? Under this category I would include
criticism, and even failure to praise him (for
accomplishment, for effort as well as just for
being a "great kid"), listen to his
opinions, and take an interest in his activities
or friends. Praise and encouragement are essential
to a child's sense of competence and emotional
security, and absence of positive feedback can
be extremely damaging to a child's self-esteem.
include parental fighting, domestic violence,
and bullying, including failure to curb bullying
behavior by siblings or peers. An absence of
consistent rules and boundaries also makes a
child feel unsafe.
the AAP, childhood trauma can also include witnessing
community and televised violence. So Tommy may
also grow to feel unsafe if he is allowed to
watch violent movies or traumatic news footage
on TV. In fact violent TV is seen by many researchers
as one of the causes of posttraumatic stress
point is that a traumatic event or interaction
must be a "repeated pattern" to cause
lasting damage. The occasional slap on the wrist
probably won't cause permanent harm; an ongoing
pattern of corporeal punishment, or threat of
such punishment, almost certainly will.
Of course not
all traumatic experiences occur in the home
or under a parent's supervision. Ostracism or
exclusion by playmates or fellow kindergarteners
has been shown to be extremely traumatic for
a young child. Similarly being forced to sit
still for long periods of time in day care,
or at school (or at home) can be very stressful
and is one of the factors that can lead to ADD/ADHD--especially
early childhood traumas include being cut-off
from nature, lack of a stimulating environment,
poverty and racial discrimination (this latter
has been shown to be a factor in some forms
of schizophrenia). Moving home frequently is
traumatic for a child (it has been linked to
suicide in older children), as is a disruptive
home life, including having to adapt to a parent's
remarriage and being part of a new blended family
(perhaps several in the course of childhood).
The kinds of
childhood traumas that lead to depression, anxiety,
PTSD, ADD/ADHD are rarely one-off events (even
a divorce may be preceded by a long period of
acrimony or instability). Single events, no
matter how traumatic, are most often forgotten
by young children since as the brain develops
it disposes of the synaptic connections (links
between brain cells or neurons) that "remember"
them. Repeated events build up more of these
connections and thus stay in the mind--though
not necessarily in the recoverable memory.
traumas such as the one's I've outlined are
rather like ghosts in the mind--their presence
is felt influencing our thoughts, beliefs and
actions but they are rarely seen with clarity.
Some early traumatic events can manifest themselves
in ways that make us believe that other, quite
different, traumas have happened to us. An example
of this is how some hospital visits in very
early childhood can lead to in adulthood to
"recovered memories" of sexual abuse
or even alien abduction (an operating theatre
is very much like many of the descriptions given
of extraterrestrial spaceships).
stressful events that occur during pregnancy
can be passed from the mother to her unborn
child via stress hormones such as noradrenalin
or cortisol. A child can be born anxious or
depressed! Some traumas are so severe that the
resulting symptoms and behaviors can pass down
through generations. Sexual or severe physical
abuse are examples. A little girl can be traumatized
by the abuse her mother suffered in her childhood,
and may feel fearful as a result.
The most important
thing to remember about childhood trauma, however,
is that given a safe and supportive environment
in which the child's fundamental needs for physical
safety, emotional security, importance and attention
are met, the damage that trauma and abuse cause
can be mitigated and alleviated. Safe and trustworthy
relationships are also a vital component in
healing the effects of childhood trauma in adulthood,
and create an environment in which the brain
can safely begin the process of recovery.
a reputable healthcare practitioner or therapist
if you are experiencing the effects of childhood
Dr Bob Murray
is a widely published psychologist and expert
on emotional health and optimal relationships.
Together with his wife and long-term collaborator
Alicia Fortinberry, he is founder of the highly
successful Uplift Program, and author
of Raising an Optimistic Child (McGraw-Hill,
2006) and Creating Optimism (McGraw-Hill,
The diagnosis and treatment of medical or psychiatric
disorders requires trained professionals. The
information provided in this article is for
educational purposes only. It should NOT be
used as a substitute for seeking professional