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Childhood Trauma and Midlife Mental Health

Childhood evokes images of innocence, joy, optimism and wonder. It is a time of security and safety, where you are unconditionally protected, nurtured and loved. Having stability in knowing you are safe and having a secure attachment with your family allows you to form healthy and safe relationships later in life.

But, sadly, the reality of many young people’s experiences and the effect on the rest of their lives is in stark contrast to this description of childhood. Many young people will endure traumatic events and experiences during early childhood or in the teens years.

Childhood trauma can take many forms: physical or sexual abuse, witnessing a traumatic event, having a severe illness that requires hospitalisation or surgery, witnessing domestic violence, experiencing intense bullying. Even extreme situations like refugee trauma and experiencing a large-scale natural disaster. These horrendous experiences are all examples of the sort trauma that many children experience.

We, as adults, are often unable to process or understand the impacts of these life events. Imagine the scale and scope through a child’s eyes, trying to process the nuances of these experiences. And trying to understand their role in these traumatic events. Children do not filter information through the prism of education, socialisation, and life experience as we do. Most of the time, they will blame themselves because they have no other point of reference to explain why these events occur and why they are happening to them.

Childhood trauma chips away at a child’s stability and sense of self, undermining self-worth and often staying with the child into adulthood. This trauma can also impact a person’s feelings and behaviour into adulthood as they experience feelings of shame and guilt, feeling disconnected and unable to relate to others, trouble controlling emotions, heightened anxiety and depression, anger. 

Let’s take the case of complex trauma when a child is exposed to multiple traumatic events that occurs directly to the child and disrupts their sense of safety and stability. If a child is abused emotionally, physically or sexually, by someone close to them, often a caregiver, it can condition the way the child forms attachments later in life. They may start to see protectors and carers through a different lens, no longer trusting those individuals to keep them safe or even “care about them.” Once a child’s sense of identity is fractured, it takes years of work to rebuild those broken pieces and have them regain trust.

Almost a third of young people in the UK experience trauma during childhood or adolescence that doubles their risk of experiencing a range of mental health challenges later in life as an adult. For example, women who experience trauma during their early teens, like emotional abuse, living with someone with addiction, parental separation or divorce are twice as likely to experience major depression during peri-menopause, even though weren’t any more likely to have experienced depression earlier in life.

These midlife mental health challenges caused by trauma earlier in life can express themselves in a number of characteristic ways. When a child, who is severely abused or neglected, becomes an adult, they may go into survival mode, become ultra-independent, push people away to protect themselves from being rejected again. Or they may become fearful and reject intimate or close relationships. Now in adulthood, those with fearful avoidant attachments are often distrustful and have a difficult time sharing emotions and may seem disconnected from their partner.

But the effects of childhood trauma can be expressed in other ways adulthood too. Someone who has experienced abuse or neglect as a child might seem clingy or needy and will require repeated validation in relationships. They will never entirely feel secure, stemming from a childhood with parents who were not consistent in the emotional security and attachments that they provided. Loving the child and then rejecting them repeatedly causes the child to continuously question their place and require ongoing validation.

The long-lasting effects of child trauma are many, and they are nuanced depending on the trauma and the child themselves. If a child comes from a home that does not provide a sense of security and protection for that child, they may resort to developing their own forms of coping mechanisms allowing them to function day-to-day just to survive. They may live on eggshells, having become accustomed to a parent or caretaker lashing out. As children and adults, they become hyper-vigilant and are really sensitive to each interaction they have and the moods of others, fearful that the individual will fly into a rage to get violent. As adults,  learn to adapt by withholding their own emotions and making waves. Masking their fear, anger and sadness. 

Strong connections also exist between childhood trauma and high-risk behaviours, like smoking, having unprotected sex, and experiencing chronic illness such as heart disease and cancer. Individuals who have experienced abuse and neglect are much more likely to experience stress and anxiety later in midlife. This long-term stress and anxiety can cause physical symptoms as well as emotional issues throughout life.  

So you can see that childhood trauma creates a fractured foundation for an individual for the rest of their lives. The way we are raised and the sense of security it creates (or shatters), all impact the emotional, and sometimes physical path, we take as adults. 

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