Early Childhood Trauma May Go Unrecognized

Child abuse / mistreatment of children. image of wounded child, maltreatment

It can be surprising to learn that a person may not know they were traumatized as a child until much later in life when they learn about the true nature of trauma and take time to reflect on their own childhood experiences.

As children grow up, they just assume that the way their parents treated them was normal and even what they deserved. If they were nurtured and cherished, and given predictable, loving experiences throughout their childhood, allowing them to grow into secure, confident and healthy adults, they will unconsciously assume this is what they deserved to experience.

The opposite is also true. When children are raised in homes that are abusive and/or neglectful, and where parents are highly disorganized and life is constantly chaotic, these children typically grow into insecure, self-critical, anxious, defensive and/or socially inept adults. The same holds true when children are ignored and treated as an annoyance or are raised in an environment of fear and anxiety or rigidity and inflexibility, and where their parents, are self-centered and see children only as a reflection of themselves. Sometimes as adults, instead of seeming shy or insecure, they can display attitudes of superiority, arrogance, self-centeredness or narcissism as a way to compensate for the loss of true self-confidence.

granddaughter and grandmother hugging. Girl is smiling with closed eyes

In Banished Knowledge: Facing Childhood Injuries, world renowned author Alice Miller shares her own discovery of how abused she was as a child, having to adapt to the needs and feelings of her mother without ever learning to feel that any of her own needs had worth. This self-realization happened to her even after undergoing complete psychoanalysis as part of her training where she described her childhood as happy and secure.

At the same time, she was driven to write books to encourage parents to “… unequivocally take the side of the child and protect him from power abuse on the part of adults.” [Page 6]. It was only later in life when she discovered her true self through painting that, in her words, “I came face to face with the terrorism exerted by my mother, at the mercy of which I had lived for so many years. For no one in my environment, not even my kind father, could ever notice or question the child abuse committed under the cloak of childrearing. If but a single person had understood at that time what was going on and had come to my defense, my entire life would have taken a different course. That person could have helped me recognize the cruelty and not tolerate it for decades as something normal and necessary, at the expense of my own life.” [Page 7]

She shares that her spontaneous painting helped her, “… not only to discover my personal history but also to liberate myself from the mental compulsions and concepts of my upbringing and training, which I recognized as being wrong, misleading, and fatal. The more I learned to follow my impulses and the free play of color and form, the weaker became my ties to aesthetic and other conventions. I was not out to paint beautiful pictures; even painting good pictures was not important to me. I wanted only to help the truth burst forth.” [Page 7]

When someone is not able to recognize the truth about their own childhood neglect or abuse, they can be doomed to assume that they are innately unlovable, undeserving, incapable, fragile, crazy and/or just plain bad. They see their parents as kind and caring because that’s what their parents said was the truth. Never questioning that “truth,” the logical conclusion was that something was wrong with them despite all the wonderful things their parents had provided them.

This lack of self-awareness about the real truth of early childhood neglect or abuse perpetuates the trauma of that neglect or abuse. It does not allow for healing because what does somebody need to heal from if they believe they are basically an undeserving or bad human being?

It is everyone’s right to look critically at the ways they were raised, at the messages that were transmitted about their worth and capabilities, and to consider the degrees to which they experienced parenting that nurtured and encouraged them to become healthy, happy and secure adults. It is not disloyal or disrespectful to take a journey into exploring the degrees to which they were parented. Parents who were unable to provide their children with messages that nurtured them almost always were not parented in ways that nurtured them when they were children. This is how parental legacies are passed from generation to generation.

Puzzle and head brain concept as a human face profile made from crumpled white paper with a jigsaw piece cut out

Subtle and invisible traumas that occur during childhood can go unrecognized and unappreciated throughout a person’s lifetime unless they are able to make a critical and objective analysis of messages and beliefs transmitted to them. There is a kind of freedom a person experiences when they discover that they are not defective human beings but rather were wounded or neglected in childhood, leaving them with unhealed emotional injuries that can explain deep feelings of sadness, rejection, incompetence and unworthiness.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. Have you ever paused to take an objective assessment of your childhood in terms of the degrees to which your parents nurtured and supported your growth, including your emotional growth? If you suffer from anxiety, insecurity, fear, or issues around anger or depression, have you considered the possibility that you were a victim of early childhood trauma and just never realized it?
  2. How comfortable are you with accepting that everyone has the right to this kind of life-examination, that it is not disloyal to do so, and that it is not in an effort to excuse yourself from taking responsibility for who you are and how you behave?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute