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Home / Lady Speak

When childhood trauma silently destroys your life

 If not dealt with, childhood traumas manifests later in adult life (Shutterstock)

We have all heard the statement that “children are resilient” and that they can quickly and easily adjust to anything and everything. 

Hence, the story is told of how children never really know or understand what is going on around them, and that what happens to children is quickly forgotten when they grow into adults.

However, research shows that what we are as adults has a lot to do with our childhood. Philosophies and perspectives with which our adult lives are founded on, no matter how wholesome or dysfunctional, may have everything to do with our childhood experiences — what we received or lacked, saw, and even heard as children.

If one suffers trauma as a child, and this trauma is not confronted and dealt with, it is not surprising that the trauma will find a way of rearing its ugly head in the person’s adult life, in one way or the other.

According to therapist Rosa Sanau, childhood trauma, also known as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), can be defined as an overwhelming/stressful experience that occur in ones childhood that can potentially have a negative impact across their life course in the absence of resilient and supportive relationships.

“Trauma does not have to be an event but any distress that results in overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds a child’s ability to cope or deal with the emotions involved with that experience,” explains Sanau.

However, Sanau notes that not every childhood traumatic experience damages the child into adulthood. “The key determinant is that a child receives adequate support and love to help them bounce back and process the occurrence.”

 Therapist Rosa Sanau

Sanau adds that, in many cases, trauma needs coping mechanisms so that an individual can survive the threat in that moment. Nonetheless, after the threat has passed, these coping mechanisms that were initially necessary for survival can become counterproductive.

“These repressed emotions and unexpressed thoughts often work in the subconscious even when the adult seems or tries to forget. The inner child tries to resolve the neglect or abandonment by replaying the family dynamics in adulthood relationships.

For instance, a child of an alcoholic parent may get into relationships as too caring and attempt to rescue or change their partner. This fantasy thinking is the inner child trying to save their alcoholic parent. Unfortunately, they end up being hurt, retraumatised and in a repetitive cycle of co-dependency because you cannot change another human being,” says Sanau.

“Another example is where children who grow up witnessing or experiencing abuse end up as abusers or victims of abuse. Some times how an individual was attached to their primary caregiver will play out in how they form and maintain adult relationships. Individuals can become hypervigilant, extremely suspicious, distant and afraid of connection, or clingy.”

Research also shows that there is a direct linkage between adverse childhood experiences and physical health outcomes. “ACEs have been linked to increased risk of obesity, substance abuse, depression, heart disease, stroke, chronic health conditions, low life potency and early death,” Sanau says.

Childhood traumas come in different ways. For adults, trauma can manifest in wars, natural disasters, and life moments such as death, accidents, illnesses, and sudden loss of finances or social status. Childhood trauma is the same but for a child, they are heavily impacted by relational experiences.

For Saiton Righa, it was being left behind by her parents when they left the country to seek greener pastures.

“The 90’s came with a difficult economic season and my primary parent had to leave the country for greener pastures. The initial plan was that I was to go but it was 20 years before we saw each other again,” Righa, now a trauma activist, says.

 Saiton Righa

To counter her traumatic experience, Righa taught herself ways to nature long-lasting relationships and immersed herself in literature to learn and understand the things she missed while growing up when it comes to having relationships with dear ones.

“I’ve had to learn how to build long-lasting and reciprocal relationships in adulthood. With friends, with my husband, even on how to be a better mother. I have had to learn from others and read widely because I didn’t necessarily get these growing up,” she says.

Moved by her own experience, Righa founded ‘Healing Growth a Digital Resource,’ a platform where she offers trauma resources to victims. As a victim turned trauma activist she says “as adults, we need to name, confront and heal to regain our power and make different choices that lead us down a better path. I fully believe you cannot heal or forgive from what you do not fully acknowledge.

“We can deny, minimise and refuse to confront but we repeat what we experienced or overcompensate to avoid and all those mean we are still hiding from the pain. In some instances, childhood trauma can lead to mental health challenges. So, it is important to begin the process of healing,” Righa says.

For Onyango Otieno, a 33-year-old victim of childhood trauma, it took therapy for him to be able to face his past and move from it. “I grew up in a very violent home,” Otieno says.

While he started suffering with low self-esteem at 15, things took the dive for the worse when he was 28 as he started suffering from depression and having suicidal thoughts.

“I began to feel depressed and to have suicidal thoughts when I was 28. I still could not connect the dots, but because I was active on social media and the response I got was enlightening. I found out that so many people were experiencing what I was feeling.

“This motivated me to get help and find out what was really going on with me, and this was where I learnt from therapy that I had post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety as a result of my childhood trauma. It explained everything, and this gave me great relief and allowed me to accept my past and to confront it, and begin to heal,” he explains.

 Onyango Otieno

Otieno believes the trauma was passed down through generations. He recounts of how his grandfather came back from the war a ‘different’ man and resorted to hitting the bottle.

“When I found out what was going on with me, I decided to research my family history. I found out that my father grew up in a home where my grandfather had thirty children and three wives. Also, that my grandfather fought in the Second World War, and probably came back with post-traumatic stress disorder and back then no one was even diagnosing it or dealing with it. His way of coping with the trauma of being in war was drinking.

“No one understood why he returned from war that way. So, it is important to get help for your trauma or you can end up passing on dysfunctional coping mechanism which resulted from unattended to trauma onto your children.” Otieno says.

Unresolved traumas make it difficult to sustain relationships and if one manages to maintain a relationship, chances are they are hardly healthy relationships. A traumatic past often leaves the victims struggling with trust and vulnerability. One could also become emotionally manipulative, secretive or completely shutdown emotionally.

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