Do You Have Childhood PTSD?
What is Childhood PTSD?
PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is a real diagnosis usually used for cases where people had a traumatic event happen in adulthood (like taking part in a violent battle, or having a car accident). The symptoms include flashbacks, anxiety, depression, insomnia, social withdrawal and explosive emotions, among other things.
Another, second of PTSD is Complex PTSD (or CPTSD) which is caused by chronic, ongoing exposure to emotional or physical trauma, such as living through a war, being in an abusive relationship, or growing up neglected or abused. It’s this variant of CPTSD I call Childhood PTSD, and it’s what my work is all about.
This website is full of my articles, videos, online courses and tools I created to help people begin recovery, whether they have access to professional help or not.
Childhood PTSD is Real
Though you won’t find Childhood PTSD (yet) in diagnostic manuals, it tends to follow a common pattern that can be observed and measured, and is now a huge area of research and advocacy worldwide. The biggest and most impactful study sor far is probably The ACE Study, which has become an accepted (if imperfect) way to measure the scope of a person’s early trauma, and to predict how it may affect them throughout life.
The ACE Study
The Ace Study began in the mid-1990s, when physician researchers Vincent Felitti of Kaiser Permanente and the Robert Anda of U.S. Centers for Disease Control interviewed hundreds of study participants about their history of adverse childhood experiences” known as the ACE Study. Felitti and Anda created a survey (you can see it and take the survey here) that asks about each of these experiences; respondents gave themselves one point for each experience on the list they checked as a yes. …Read More
So a person’s ACE score is somewhere between zero and ten.The ten adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs include:
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Physical neglect
- Emotional neglect
- Mother treated violently
- Household substance abuse
- Household mental illness
- Parental seperation or divorce
- Incarcerated household member
There are many other experiences that could be included, like the death of a parent, or being bullied in school, or being desperately poor, or a living as a refugee; you can take this into consideration when you take the test.
What Does a High ACE Score Mean?
The researchers found that the higher your ACE score, the higher the probability that you’ll experience certain problems in your life. Many of these are common sense problems most peole know — things like depression, anxiety, smoking and other addictions, eating disorders, violent behavior, or being in a violent relationship.
But the study showed some surprising correlations as well. Higher ACE scores increase the likelihood of cognitive difficulties including ADHD, memory problems and learning disabilities.…Read More
They’re closely correlated with heart disease, obesity, diabetes, migraines, cancer, autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, thyroid disorders, chronic fatigue, rheumatoid arthritis reproductive disorders like endometriosis and pelvic inflammatory disease, gastrointestinal disorders, fibromyalgia and chronic pain, chronic lung disease and stroke.
This was big news — that trauma in childhood can play a significant role in behavioral and physiological problems in adults.
And what this means is that learning to heal Childhood PTSD is one of the most important we can do as people, and as a society.
How Does Early Trauma Cause Childhood PTSD?
“Trauma” is what we experienced as kids when the bad things were happening. When you’re a baby or small child, trauma is particularly toxic for your brain, and causes developmental changes. Believe it or not, being neglected can be even worse for your brain than being abused. For healthy brain development, a child needs the parent to be connected with them, to make eye contact and talk to them, to respond to their feelings and their accomplishments.…Read More
If parents are dead, gone, drunk, high, obsessed with a boyfriend, depressed or otherwise not paying attention to the child, the child may learn to dissociate (it kind of means “to check out”), or grow frequently “dysregulated” in terms of brain, nervous system or emotions; and may grow up with a limited capacity to connect with people, pay attention or learn.
These brain changes also have consequences for physical health. A traumatized child may have headaches and stomach troubles, but as she grows to adulthood, even more serious problems can show up. It’s not well understood yet how or why, but the health, emotional and cognitive problems associated with Childhood PTSD are all related to nervous system dysregulation.
Are the Symptoms of CPTSD Different than PTSD?
Trauma is also at play in PTSD. In the case of combat veterans, for example, they come back from war experiences and might find themselves anxious, depressed, or having trouble sleeping, connecting with people or dealing with the bad memories.
They might have “flashbacks,” where they remember something or dream about it, and forget for a moment that this is now, and the old trauma is not actually happening. Their body is reacting as if it is happening now, with heart pounding, adrenaline pumping, and other stress hormones pushing their bodies into a stressful overdrive.…Read More
If the reaction keeps happening, it can wear them down. Combat vets with PTSD have a high rate of drinking, using drugs and even suicide.
Those of us who had traumatic childhoods may develop Complex PTSD, or CPTSD, which can be similar to adult-onset PTSD. There are two specific symptoms that mark CPTSD:
Emotional Flashbacks: Unlike specific memories of events, emotional flashbacks involve strong negative emotions that don’t seem on the surface connected to anything happening in present time. A person will be flooded, for small reasons or no reasons, with an overwhelming sense of sadness, rage, terror or frustration. It can happen when you wake up, for example, or when someone criticizes you, or gives you a present. You are not reliving some childhood experience consciously — you know that you are here in present time. But the emotions don’t know it and are reacting like you did during the original trauma.
Dysregulation: Childhood trauma is associated with a tendency to become dysregulated — emotionally and neurologically. Everyone gets dysregulated sometimes, and most of us eventually re-regulate. But people with Childhood PTSD may spend more time in a dysregulated state and have difficulty re-regulating. You might feel numbness in your hands or mouth, get lost while driving, or find yourself unable to finish a sentence. Dysregulation can also lead to illness, learning difficulties and emotional overreactions. If dysregulation happens with an emotional flashback and you’re upset or angry, your emotions might first flare and then go very flat and emotionless.
When you’re dysregulated, part of your brain is actually shut down (an old response to unbearable stress when your brain was developing). Without your full brain working, you are not fully yourself. So you may seem to have too much or too little emotion, and say things you don’t really mean (they seem true in the moment, but only because you’re operating with half a brain!).
Four Discoveries Revolutionizing Our Understanding of Childhood PTSD
- Recent research has shown that abuse, neglect and other traumas cause brain changes in children. This damage, in turn, can cause cognitive impairment, emotional problems and chronic disease. Though much of the damage can be reversed, it’s important to be aware of how these events can have such a broad impact on every part of our lives.
- Focusing on your childhood traumas will not, by itself, produce recovery. While taking stock of what happened is a useful first step, putting attention on bad things can actually retraumatize you, and in the retraumatized state, it can be impossible to reason, remember or integrate information. This is one of the main reasons that talk therapy doesn’t work very well for trauma, and why other methods of recovery are necessary. Focusing on childhood can also emphasize blame, which ultimately keeps you trapped.
- Learning to regulate your emotions makes change possible. The problem is not so much the memories, but the unregulated emotions they trigger. In these hyper-emotional states we are prone to (and even crave) destructive behaviors. The sooner we can recognize that this “flooding” is happening, the sooner we can interrupt the flood. We can do this with quick interventions, like stepping away, refraining from speaking, breathing deeply, writing our fears and resentments on paper, or counting to ten — or ongoing practices like daily writing, meditation, exercise and connecting with like-minded others.
- Instead of talking about it, taking action and making strong decisions about your life is the most powerful way to change your health, your thinking, and your behavior. Granted, past trauma can have a big impact on your functioning today, and messed-up families can pass on some dysfunctional beliefs and habits. But your past can’t change and your family is unlikely to change. It is you and only you who can change your life, and everything now depends on your willingness to take action.
Ready to try a NEW way of healing? You’re invited to join my online courses:
If you’re not sure if or how you’re affected by early trauma, try my free Quiz Downloads