Thinking About the Consequences of Childhood Trauma

Childhood experiences, both positive and negative, have a tremendous impact on our future.

In his memoir, ‘Hillbilly Elegy’, J. D. Vance explores what it feels like to nearly give up on yourself. He says,

“I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children.”

Vance discovered that breaking out of the ‘poverty’ cycle didn’t protect him from the demons of the life he left behind. He found they continue to pursue him and present an ongoing challenge that can last a lifetime.

Vance was born in southwestern Ohio in a part of the country slammed by the decline of manufacturing, joblessness, addiction, and broken homes. He grew up poor, in the Rust Belt, in an Ohio steel town that has been haemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as he can remember.

Vance explores the attitudes of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent with ties to Appalachia and found ‘they are a pessimistic bunch, more down about the future than many other groups.’ They blame their troubles on economic insecurity while preserving a culture that increasingly encourages social decay. They believe they have little control over their lives and are quick to blame everyone but themselves.

To illustrate this distorted outlook Vance says,

“We’ll get fired for tardiness, or for stealing merchandise and selling it on eBay, or for having a customer complain about the smell of alcohol on our breath, or for taking five thirty-minute restroom breaks per shift. We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance—the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach.”

Vance had a troubled family life. His father abandoned him and his mother couldn’t break free from the endless cycle of drug use and broken relationships. He was left feeling traumatised.

The word trauma is used to describe negative events that are emotionally painful and that overwhelm a person’s ability to cope.

A traumatic event leaves its mark on the individual and its consequences reach into adulthood. The trauma need not be physical.

The following events or feelings were a part of Vance’s childhood.

• being sworn at, insulted, or humiliated by parents
• being pushed, grabbed, or having something thrown at you
• feeling that your family didn’t support each other
• living with an alcoholic or drug user
• living with someone who was depressed or attempted suicide
• watching a loved one be physically abused

The term used to describe childhood trauma is ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences’ or ACEs. They may include abuse, neglect and a range of household dysfunction such as witnessing domestic violence or growing up with substance abuse, mental illness, parental discord, or crime in the home.

ACEs are strongly related to the development and prevalence of a wide range of health problems. Children with multiple ACEs are more likely to struggle with anxiety and depression, to suffer from heart disease and obesity, and to contract certain types of cancers.

Harvard paediatricians have studied the effect that childhood trauma has on the mind. They found that constant stress can actually change the chemistry of a child’s mind. Stress, after all, is triggered by a physiological reaction. It’s the consequence of adrenaline and other hormones flooding our system, usually in response to some kind of stimulus.

Having read the research undertaken by Harvard Vance reflected on his stressful childhood and concluded

“For kids like me, the part of the brain that deals with stress and conflict is always activated…We are constantly ready to fight or flee, because there is a constant exposure to the ‘bear’, whether that bear is an alcoholic dad or an unhinged mom… I see conflict and I run away or prepare for battle.”

Vance beat the odds, overcoming huge disadvantages and achieved academic and career success. When he turned eighteen he joined the Marines and served his country in Iraq. He later attended Ohio State University and Yale Law School where he earned a law degree and met his future wife, Usha.

Vance believes community and family really matter. He attributes his social and economic advancement to a small group of family and friends who loved him and believed in him. Included in this group were his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, his sister Lindsay and his aunt Wee.

Vance is indebted to his grandparents. They survived a difficult time when alcohol and abuse threatened to tear their marriage apart. They eventually reconciled, becoming his de facto guardians. Even as a child Vance could see two sets of mores and social pressures at work. He says,

“My grandparents embodied one type: old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hardworking. My mother and, increasingly, the entire neighbourhood embodied another: consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful.”

Vance appreciated knowing what was expected. His grandmother’s advice was clear and concise: good grades, a good job, get up and help me. It is about working hard, studying hard and being mindful of your responsibilities to those you share your life with.

When our son Adam took his life in 2011 we were desperate to know why. One approach was to look at his life as a whole, to identify the events that may have injured him emotionally or psychologically.

Our own life experience informed us that childhood trauma could have a lasting impact on how we function later in life. Traumatic experiences instil fear and doubt. They damage our confidence and undermine our self-belief.

There was one experience in Adam’s early childhood that was foremost in our thinking. When he was eighteen months old he broke his femur and was hospitalised for two weeks. His movements were restricted as his lower body was encased in a Hip Spica and his legs in traction. We were able to be with him during the day, keeping him entertained. But during the night he was without our company. We can’t imagine the range of emotions he experienced. He was, however, able to articulate his feeling of being alone. He would say to us, “Mummy gone!” “Daddy gone!”

Hospitalisation could be considered an ‘ordinary’ event. Many young children end up in hospital, some for extended stays.

As parents, we were not attuned to any changes in Adam’s behaviour nor were we aware of the lasting effects such an experience might have on a vulnerable child.

Current understanding is that when young children are exposed to life-threatening or traumatic events they become scared. They may experience feelings of helplessness, uncertainty about whether there is more danger and a general fear that extends beyond the traumatic event and into other areas of their lives.

Researchers have studied the consequences of childhood trauma. They found

“Events that occur in a young child’s life, particularly the first few years, influence their immune system; how they express and manage their feelings; behaviour and stress; how they form relationships; their communication skills; their intelligence and functions like body temperature and hormone production.”

In the Child Development and Trauma Guide, prepared by the Department of Human Services, Victoria (2010), it says,

‘Children need to be made safe and given opportunities to integrate and make sense of their experiences.’

A parent’s knowledge of the possible impact of trauma can assist in promoting the child’s mental health and wellbeing.

Supportive and caring relationships during tough times help children manage trauma and find ways to recover.

We suggested to Adam, on more than one occasion, that he might benefit from counselling but he didn’t see the need. It is not uncommon for a person to suppress their memories of a traumatic experience, relegating it to the subconscious. But burying our painful experiences doesn’t allow us to access what we need to heal. As psychotherapist Derek O’Neil says,

“Repression protects but doesn’t mend, reconcile and rebuild.”

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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