Childhood trauma can have lifelong repercussions. These can be minor to severe, depending on the severity and duration of the trauma, the presence of parental support during the traumatic events, as well as the innate resilience of the child who experienced them.
Regardless of what form the trauma takes, a lack of parental support combined with a higher degree of personal susceptibility to the traumatic events can lead to the formation of emotional wounds, and often, disorders of attachment.
In emotionally intact adults, connecting to others comes relatively easy. We meet people, we like each other, and we form strong social bonds. In individuals who’ve experienced childhood trauma, all of these stages can be disrupted.
People with a history of childhood trauma might believe that others will only want to associate with them if they’re a people-pleaser or care-taker.
The emotionally wounded individual has more difficulty trusting others after the painful experiences they’ve been through. They might have a deep-seated belief that they aren’t lovable or that they’re not entitled to a loving relationship. They might be terrified of being hurt, exploited, abandoned or rejected. All of this could lead them to isolate themselves and avoid closeness with others.
People with a history of childhood trauma might believe that others will only want to associate with them if they’re a people-pleaser or care-taker. They enter into co-dependent relationships and when these invariably fall apart, they’re more fearful than ever of being hurt.
Some of these individuals are so convinced that they’ll be rejected that they inadvertently behave in ways that provoke the other person to do this. (This is an example of how our psychological defence mechanisms backfire, giving us exactly what we’re trying to avoid.)
People with childhood trauma may have deep (and valid) needs for love and nurturing that weren’t met when they were growing up. Some believe that they can get these needs met in their adult relationships. This can lead to, at best, dysfunctional relationships and, at worst, abusive ones in which a shrewd, exploitative predator takes advantage of their neediness.
Individuals with emotional wounds from a hurtful childhood often feel uncomfortable around other people and don’t know how to act. They often feel awkward and anxious in social situations, leading to upsetting interactions which only reinforce their sense of alienation.
These individuals have difficulty forming close bonds, either because they don’t expect people to stick around or because after everything they’ve been through, it’s difficult for them to open their heart to someone else. Sometimes, their deep ambivalence about closeness makes them behave in ways that are confusing or off-putting to others.
Some individuals with a history of childhood trauma might choose friends or partners who are hurtful or abusive. This happens because everyone prefers the familiar, and hurtful people today remind these individuals of the hurtful people from their past.
Sadly, being in relationships with hurtful people can make trauma-sufferers that much more fearful about getting involved with the next person, resulting in further social withdrawal.
Loneliness is very much a part of our modern society. More and more, our “relationships” are carried out through social media as opposed to in-person. More and more, we’re so busy and over-extended that we have little time to spend with the people we care about.
For individuals with childhood trauma, the ubiquity of social media makes it that much easier to avoid the challenges of connecting. These individuals can conduct the majority of their “relationships” online, in order to minimize the risks getting hurt.
Of course, the fewer in-person relationships we have and the more online ones we have, the lonelier we’re likely to feel. There’s no substitute for in-person contact in terms of the emotional nourishment we receive and the social skills we develop. Ultimately, if we really want to connect meaningfully with others, we have to do it in-person.
Childhood trauma can have long-term consequences, and the struggle to connect with others is one of the most significant of these. If you’ve been keeping to yourself or having difficulties with interpersonal relationships, it could be a sign that you have childhood trauma.
If you’ve been having difficulty connecting with others, the way to improve your relationships isn’t necessarily through social skills training. You may need to go a bit deeper by working with a therapist or counselor to heal your childhood trauma.
If childhood trauma is something you’ve experienced, doing this work could make it that much easier for you to connect with others and create meaningful, lasting relationships.
THREE QUESTIONS TO ASK YOUR CHILD IF YOU THINK THEY’RE LONELY
Feelings of isolation can have a direct impact on their health. By Isabelle Khoo
In the age of social media, it can be surprisingly easy to feel disconnected from our peers. But while loneliness is commonly associated with adults, it’s important to remember that teens and children can feel lonely too. Clinical psychologist, Dr. Rachel Andrew can attest to this. “Loneliness is a subject that often comes up in clinic, children as young as three or four will say things like they don’t have any friends or that nobody likes them. It’s quite common when they start preschool or primary school because they’re naturally introduced to wider social situations, which some find hard to navigate. “Feelings of isolation can have various effects on your health, such as cardiovascular problems, cognitive decline, and cellular aging, which is why it’s important for parents to be aware of their children’s emotional well-being. Sarah Dimmerman, a Thornhill, Ontario psychologist and parenting expert, says the best way to do this is to keep an open dialogue with your kids.
“The best way to maintain open communication between you and your child is to validate and acknowledge what you are seeing, to reflect back to your child what you are hearing and then to brainstorm solutions together,” she told HuffPost Canada via email.
If you’re worried your child (or teen!) is lonely, Dimerman offers three questions to ask that will encourage your child to open up about their feelings.
“I see some of the kids at school making plans with one another for after-school play dates. Would you like that too?”
There are kids who might not understand what loneliness is or who have trouble describing how they feel, Dimerman suggests approaching the subject by talking about something you’ve noticed, such as in the question above.
“The reason for asking this is that your child’s response will give you some indication as to how [they] might be feeling,” the author and creator of Help Me Sara explains. “For example, [they] may say, ‘Well, I’ve tried but everyone says that they’re busy,’ or ‘No, I don’t like anyone in my class’ or ‘Yes, can I?'”
Based on their response, you can figure out next steps. For instance, if your child suggests they’re having trouble fitting in, you can ask their teacher to monitor their social interactions at school to figure out why, Dimerman advises. However, if your child says they don’t like any of their peers, that may be a sign that they’re trying to protect themselves, Dimerman says, so you may need to to have a deeper discussion with them about their emotions.
I’ve noticed that you’re looking a little sad lately. Are you feeling lonely?
It seems like common sense to just ask your child outright whether or not they’re lonely, but some parents worry that this will make their kids think they’re socially isolated when they aren’t. According to Dimerman, this is an unnecessary concern.
“My experience has shown that if a child is not feeling something (sad or lonely in this case), then [they] will not feel that way simply because you have suggested it,” she explains. “However, you may see and hear more about it after you’ve mentioned it because you have given your child permission to speak about it. “The suggested question above “may be validating [for your child] since you are acknowledging what you are seeing — especially if this is not your child’s typical emotional tone,” Dimerman adds.
I see that you are spending more time alone than usual. Are you choosing to be alone or would you rather be around others more?
“If your child says that they choose [to be alone], you may still want to explore why. If they did not choose, you may want to explore solutions to change [the situation],” Dimerman advises.
However, the parenting expert notes that you should never ask “why” outright.
“Children may either not know why the situation is what it is or may not want to explain it right away,” she says. “‘Why’ can be explored in other ways, such as suggesting that you both come up with possible reasons why the situation may be what it is and then brainstorm solutions to change it.”
At the end of the day, you want to validate your child’s emotions so that they feel comfortable opening up to you going forward.
“When a child feels validated and heard, [they] feel safe to open up and explore [their] emotions and the situation at hand,” Dimerman explains. “If [they] feel lectured at or interrogated, [they] will shut down. This is not just true for parents and children, but for every person-to-person communication.”