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What exactly is considered “trauma”?

Sometimes it’s hard to think that the small painful events in our childhood can merit the term – “trauma”. It may be easier to consider events such as physical and sexual abuse, severe neglect,or the death of a parent or sibling to be traumatic. But there are also the smaller traumas in childhood that occur from circumstances in daily life…Like you make a mistake in a classroom and a mean teacher humiliates you or you are excluded by a set of the “popular” crowd and you’re feeling alone and left out, or you are teased and bullied by an older sibling or classmate. Any of these events from childhood can turn into traumas that stay stuck in your consciousness and have effects later in your adult life. Sometimes the more subtle experiences, like being neglected repeatedly by busy but well meaning parents, can be more difficult to heal because it is harder to recognize the experiences as being “traumatic”. When a memory is traumatic, it stays with you. Thinking about it, can bring a feeling of deep pain and shame.   With that memory is the powerful emotional painful feeling you had in childhood  along with negative beliefs about yourself that can persist in time. These thoughts, images and sensations can stay stuck in the body and mind and can affect you as an adult. Negative beliefs like ” It’s my fault” or I’m unloveable” or “I’m not good enough” can distort your present reality. Low self-esteem, shame, depression and anxiety are symptoms that can develop as a result of childhood trauma.   There is often additional shame that these events from childhood still haunt us even though decades may have passed.

How is it possible to heal from childhood  trauma?

One of the first steps in healing childhood trauma is recognizing what has occurred.  This needs to be done in a supportive, nurturing and sensitive way.  Whether the trauma is large or small, there is a tendency to minimize its effects or dismiss the feelings associated with it. This can come from parents who did not want to deal with the feelings of a child in pain either from their own wounds or just plain ignorance.  We can retain old ideas that crying over something in the past makes us weak or that being vulnerable opens us to further humiliation. So it’s easier to stuff it down, deny what has happened and pretend that our feelings don’t matter. When that occurs, these childhood injuries can stay stuck.  We keep our old perspective as a child who is limited by knowledge and experience. It is hard to accept that anything good can come of reliving or sharing our painful memories of past traumas. Yet it is through this first step of recognizing the trauma that the injured child within can have a chance to heal and to develop a new and fresh perspective.  Healing doesn’t often happen alone.   Often when the injury happens in relationship, then the way to healing is also in relationship.  When childhood injuries are looked at in a therapeutic relationship where there is trust and support, there is the possibility for  healing childhood trauma. We can truly integrate these wounds and  develop more understanding and deeper compassion towards ourselves and others.

Marlena Kushner, MFT


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