The Effects of Childhood Trauma by Bob Ritzema
A 2016 article by Emily Gurnon, Health and Caregiving Editor for Next Avenue, described the longstanding effects of childhood trauma. As Gurnon summarized, these effects range from physical problems to emotional problems, substance abuse, and risky behaviors:
“Research has shown that childhood trauma, ranging from parents’ divorce to alcoholism in the home, increases the odds of heart disease, stroke, depression, suicide, diabetes, lung diseases, alcoholism and liver disease later in life. It also increases risky health behaviors like smoking and having a large number of sexual partners. And it contributes to ‘low life potential,’ according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.”
Many adults who are survivors of childhood trauma have never told anyone. Gurnon discussed this phenomenon with Michael Barnes, a program manager at an addictions treatment center in Colorado. Barnes indicates that those over 50 are less likely to tell others about their experience of trauma than are younger adults. Men are less likely than women to tell others. Gender roles seem to have something to do with men’s reluctance to convey such information, in that men are more likely to think they should be stoic about their suffering and able to get over the effects of past trauma on their own.
In my years working as a clinical psychologist, I didn’t specialize in providing therapy for those who had childhood trauma, so clients didn’t seek me out specifically for help with that problem. Nevertheless, over the years I had hundreds of clients tell me of some form of trauma they had sustained during childhood. Physical abuse was common, as was parental alcoholism, substance abuse, or erratic behavior. Sexual molestation also occurred frequently, with the perpetrator usually being someone the child knew, often someone within the family. I would estimate that at least a third of the time the person had never talked to anyone previously about what had happened. Usually this wasn’t a result of forgetting or not thinking about the trauma; often, the person thought about it every day, but couldn’t overcome the discomfort, shame, or fear of blame associated with letting someone else know.
For the most part, telling someone about a past trauma is helpful. I say “for the most part” because sometimes the person becomes too absorbed in the telling and is re-traumatized, or is so detached from the memory that talking about it has no more significance to them than does telling what he or she had for breakfast. Talking about the memory is most helpful if the person can experience the emotions associated with it–fear, hurt, shame, sadness, anger, and a variety of others–but at the same time stay in contact with the present rather than being swallowed up by the past. Therapists who are knowledgeable about working with trauma sufferers can help the trauma survivor maintain this balance. Therapists can also help with the development of skills for dealing with the effects of the trauma and can help the person make sense of what happened to them.
So, for those who have kept memories of childhood trauma hidden away for many decades, I encourage you to tell someone. If the effects of the trauma remain strong, consider psychotherapy. Childhood trauma has profound effects, but, for those who seek help, there is hope for recovery!
By Bob Ritzema