Symptoms of childhood trauma in adulthood

It is said that we are products of our upbringing. Symptoms of childhood trauma in adulthood demonstrate that is true.

There is no fact of human existence that resonates so profoundly and pervasively through time as Developmental Trauma (aka Complex Trauma). Developmental Trauma is a pattern of chronic, prolonged childhood abuse and neglect and symptoms of childhood trauma in adulthood impact marriage.

We are well acquainted with the statistics on children

In the USA alone, over 3 million children are reported to child services for suspicion of abuse and neglect every year. And of those 3 million suspected cases, 1 million are confirmed.

A million candles burning for the help that never came…

Leonard Cohen

The overwhelming source of most childhood trauma are the very people who should be protectors and nurturers… parents. Parents are directly responsible for an astonishing 80% of child abuse and neglect. And once married, the most important emotionally to this person is now the spouse.

Research has now confirmed that despite our collective discomfort in discussing it, childhood trauma is widespread. The symptoms of childhood trauma in adulthood are equally widespread but poorly understood by the general pubic or the spouse. These are frequent themes in our intensive couple retreats.

Developmental Trauma has a deep impact on the adult who is yet to be, and future capacity for pair bonding and parenting. I think of Developmental Trauma as a sort of spiritual black plague; infecting generation after generation. It drags us down, suffocates our capacity for intimacy, and dims our light.

One of the most important studies into childhood trauma was the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, conducted about 20 years ago by Kaiser Permanente and the Center for Disease Control. It was a massive study, with over 17,000 participants answering a series of questions concerning adverse childhood experiences (ACE). The results were shocking and sobering:

  •   11% reported a climate of ongoing emotional abuse.
  •   Over 30% experienced physical abuse.
  •   Almost 20% reported sexual abuse.
  •   Over 23% described the pain of navigating through parental alcohol abuse.
  •   Over 12% saw their mother being battered.
  •   Almost 19% reported exposure to parental mental illness.
  •   And almost 5% described parental drug abuse.

Are you a sufferer of Developmental Trauma? Here are the 10 ACE questions.

How many aces were in the parental hand that you were dealt?

How did you do on the ACE questionnaire? How many “aces” have you noticed in your own life…or in your partner?

Science tells us that adverse childhood experiences change the structure and function of our brains and nervous systems. Developmental Trauma catches us in a deep emotional trap. We hunger for intimacy, but we are poorly equipped to navigate the everyday stresses that arise from our being in a relationship with an intimate partner. The symptoms of childhood trauma in adulthood are sometimes subtle, far-reaching, and disguised as something else…alcohol or drug abuse, sexual disinterest or compulsivity (sometimes switching one to the other), unproductive fights, emotional flashbacks and a deep feeling of emptiness. They may be overwhelmed by panic attacks for no apparent reason, or uncooperative without explanation.

Limiting beliefs that stem from developmental trauma

Here are eight common self-limiting beliefs common to sufferers of Developmental Trauma.

Are any operating in your life today?

These thoughts could be more like a sort of background noise, undermining our capacity for experiencing pleasure and enthusiasm for life. They may also tend to be more acutely experienced during times of stress and overwhelm.

  • I am not safe. The world is a dangerous place and the people I live with are dangerous.
  •  If I am alone. It’s better that way.
  •  I am worthless. A fraud.
  •  I am broken. And can never be fixed.
  •  I can only rely on myself. People always let you down.
  •  I am a terrible person.
  •  I am powerless. Nobody cares what I think.
  •  I can never change.

People with Developmental Trauma are perpetually vigilant and on high alert.  Research shows that their brain has a reduced capacity to experience enthusiasm and pleasure because it can never correctly regulate its fight/flight/freeze response.

Further health consequences of developmental trauma

Developmental Trauma has been clinically correlated with depression, anxiety disorders, attachment disorders, self-destructive and impulsive behaviors, suicide attempts, future domestic violence, obesity, sexual promiscuity, sexual anorexia, compulsivity, and even cigarette smoking.

It’s estimated that 70% of people afflicted with Developmental Trauma have, at one time or another, endured ongoing struggles with alcoholism, drug abuse, or low sexual desire or sexual compulsivity. The need to self-medicate with mood-altering substances or experiences is sometimes their single greatest presenting problem. Appropriate self-care can be impaired to varying degrees, or utterly non-existent.

But wait..unfortunately there is more. If you were dealt a lousy parental hand, you also are more likely to develop heart disease, cancer, liver disease, stroke, skeletal fractures, emotional dysregulation, aggressive behavior, chronic headaches, gastrointestinal disorders, self-loathing, and persistent feelings of being “broken” or “crazy.”

Developmental Trauma wrecks havoc with ordinary human neurobiological development. It fragments the capacity to integrate thinking, feeling, and physical sensations. The ability to have an adaptive response to adult stresses is severely compromised.

People with Developmental Trauma soak up the vast majority of ongoing social services. They make up almost our entire criminal justice population.

And, paradoxically, sufferers of Developmental Trauma may also reach the pinnacles of success and achievement.

Developmental trauma and marital conflict

What’s most confusing is even when they’re with a sympathetic spouse, the trauma brain is continuously scanning the environment for danger. It often misinterprets things that a partner says or does, as a personal attack. They hear and take offense to what hasn’t been said, they defend to protect themselves without cause, and they can simply leave, either physically or emotionally. Emotions shift dramatically from emotional numbness to overwhelming anger, panic, or confusion.

It becomes locked in a perpetually negative feedback loop. The spouse is perceived as just another source of potential danger, not a source of comfort or support. The trauma survivor believes they are actually “crazy” and tries to hide their symptoms. Sex dies between them as emotional intimacy fades.

I recently spoke to one of our clients about his Developmental Trauma.  Like many Couples Therapy Inc. clients, he is very successful and accomplished. He married a beautiful woman only a few years ago, but now he is contemplating divorce for no apparent reason.

I am happiest when I am alone,” he said.

His brain was confusing an unconscious sense of safety, (which allows his nervous system to relax…) with authentic happiness.

This is a sad and emotionally impoverished condition common to those afflicted by childhood trauma.

People afflicted with Developmental Trauma struggle with a relentless cascade of problems that are cognitive, emotional, and physical. This overwhelming toxic soup may stress some marriages to the breaking point. Without science-based couples therapy, otherwise resilient unions may buckle and bend under the accumulated weight of chronic misunderstandings, miscommunication, and frustrated aspirations.

The tragedy is that many fail to connect the dots. They blame themselves, or their partners. They don’t see the failure of their parents to provide a safe and nurturing environment.  They don’t attribute their poor parental examples of how to be a connected, intimate partner, as the “ground zero” of their struggles and pain.

Healing begins when the sufferer begins to learn how dependent they are on their childhood “blueprints” and negative self-talk.  To heal, they must tell (but not cling to) their story and connect the dots. They heal by questioning their automatic assumptions and recognizing how their brains are keeping them stuck in a Groundhog Day of perpetual torment and diminished interpersonal expectations.

Symptoms of childhood trauma in adulthood are healed when the developmental trauma is healed.

And yet, the prospects of having to go back to a frightening time and to tell the story of their childhoods is usually avoided.

People with Developmental Trauma may want to be alone, but this is exactly how they remain stuck. And may even get worse.

They must build emotional muscle with their partner, learn to ask for what they want and to soothe the wounded exile in their minds.

The most important factor for healing Developmental Trauma is to find a safe therapeutic space where trauma can be processed without collapsing into the old maladaptive narratives and storylines. Individual therapy and couples therapy are often used concurrently to:

  • gently question rigid, automatic responses,
  • develop new understandings and connections,
  • master uncomfortable physical sensations, and
  • explore the negative beliefs and self-talk that restrict and confine emotional responses.

Intensive couples retreats are an effective way to explore marital issues that are complicated by Developmental Trauma. Chaos and rigidity are the hallmarks of a brain with unresolved Developmental Trauma. This is often hard to safely address in short weekly sessions.

A brain that is healing from childhood trauma is successfully integrating the inventory of adverse childhood experiences.  With proper therapy, a new, richer “thicker” more complex story emerges. The brain becomes more supple, flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized, and stable.

Developmental Trauma is a relational wound and the symptoms of childhood trauma in adulthood are relational challenges.

And only a therapeutic approach that emphasizes an intimate relationship can promote healing and recovery.

The ability to be attuned and resonate with an intimate other can also be employed in shifting the stance toward yourself, and the baggage of your personal history.

It frees you up to establish healthy boundaries, create a new story and enjoy new possibilities.

Originally published January 8, 2017

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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  1. Hello Mr Dasnaw

    Thank you for your work and this blog.

    As I’ve struggled through an empty and lonely marriage recently co-raising two children, I often wonder will I ever be happy, succeed and or be able to love and be loved, unequivocally, to name a few emotional ailments.

    I too suffer from a traumatic childhood. So does my therapist spouse. We are not in a good place at all and she no longer wants to do therapy together. We are in a quasi separated state.

    My ACE/PCE score is 6/2, hers a little more I’d say.

    While we both have been in individual therapy respectively for a long time, we never have tried intense couples therapy even though in her practice I believe she sees success with her clients.

    I don’t know what to do

  2. This article is the best information I have ever read about the effects of childhood trauma . It made me realize I’m not crazy… why I like to be alone.. and explains to me why I let my self be emotionally abused in my marriage for all these years. This article has information about a supportive spouse and the issues, do you have information about a spouse that is not supportive and emotionally abusive?

  3. What score do you have to get on the ACE to have developmental trauma? Does checking any of them mean that you are, indeed, dealing with developmental trauma?

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