The Four Different Kinds of Childhood Trauma

It is virtually impossible to leave childhood without incurring some kinds of trauma.

Some early life experiences affect our ability to attach to others and impact our sense of self. These are called developmental traumas. An example of developmental trauma is called abandonment. This occurs when the baby’s mother is emotionally unavailable, unattuned or inattentive. The mother cannot give the baby the deep emotional bonding and security that they need to feel loved, cherished and important.

Another developmental trauma occurs in the toddler stage (around age 2) when the child receives “parent centered parenting”, instead of “child centered parenting.” That means the parents wants of or for the child are paramount over the child’s wants or needs. And therefore, the mirroring they receive doesn’t reflect to the child who they are, but rather what it is the parent wants them to be. The mirror is distorted because of the parent’s own insecurities or lack of sense of self. An example is when the parent suffers from low self-esteem they may tell the child, “When you grow up you are going to be a doctor.” This career choice may enhance the parent’s self-esteem but not reflect the qualities or interests of the child.  

With this kind of parenting they will grow up disconnected from their wants. They are afraid to choose “the wrong thing” so they will become stuck, unable to choose what they want because they don’t know who they are and truly what their wants are.

A third developmental trauma is being disempowered. This happens around age 3 to 4 when the child develops the ability to do things. The goal is to create a belief in themselves to master tasks and gain competence. The trauma occurs when a parent shames and or humiliates the child.

An example is when the child is learns to ride a bike. With one or both parents watching they lose control and crash.  The child is scrapped up and with tearful eyes looks expectantly towards the parent. Both break out into laughter and say, “You silly thing!  You thought you were going to ride that bike and you just screwed up! What is wrong with you!” These kind of experiences damages their belief in themselves and will undermine their ability to master challenges in the future.

Finally, there are childhood traumas we most associate with as being traumas. Such as when the child experiences the death of a parent, early in life, having an alcoholic dad or mom or being physically or sexually abused. All these things shatter a child’s ability to make sense of their lives and the world. Without treatment, they will grow into adults that will struggle with addictions or alcoholism themselves and will repeat the same patterns of abusing themselves, or others. They will often be treated badly by others and not even know that they deserve better.

Any of these kinds of trauma will bring a person in for treatment in the therapist’s office. Often the “presenting problem” is not directly about any of these different kinds of trauma. It is often something to do with “flash backs” memory fragments, paralyzing anxiety, a divorce or a job loss.

Only after the presenting problem is addressed are these deeper issues discovered or discussed and then it is time to start the therapy process to deal with them. Over time the therapy can address the wounding that occurred in the client’s childhood so that they are a better functioning, healthier and happier individual.