What is emotional trauma
Emotional trauma is experiencing a severely distressing event or a sequence of events that generate feelings too overwhelming to manage or process. It is usually caused by adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).1
Experiencing emotional trauma is a subjective and personal matter. What feels traumatic to one individual may not be perceived the same way by another. Therefore, only you can determine if you’ve suffered emotional trauma from your parents. Their denial or disagreement doesn’t change your personal experience or feelings.
Effects of emotional trauma from parents
Vulnerable children rely entirely on their parents for their survival and well-being. This dependency extends beyond just physical needs like food, shelter, and clothing. It also encompasses emotional, psychological, and social needs, which are crucial for a child’s overall development and well-being.
When parents are the source of child emotional pain, there can be long-lasting effects. Children look to their parents for love, support, and guidance. If, instead, they encounter neglect or abuse, it can disrupt their sense of safety and identity, leading to various adverse outcomes.
Effects of child abuse include2
- Lack of emotional regulation
- Anger, aggression, or rage
- Low self-esteem
- Lack of trust
- Fear of abandonment
- Relationship difficulties
- Mental health conditions include anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, substance use disorder, borderline personality disorder, attachment disorders, etc.
- A significantly negative outlook on life
- Weakened immune system and illnesses, such as heart disease3
Also See: Signs Of Childhood Trauma In Adults
How to deal with emotional trauma from parents
Understanding the causes and impacts of your struggles can help you overcome attachment trauma.
If you are a minor, talk to school counselors or trusted adults for help. They are in the best position to help you out.
For adults dealing with emotional trauma from parents, here are some steps to help you start your healing journey.
Establish a clear boundary with the individual who has caused the trauma as a means of self-protection. If they fail to respect these boundaries, it may be necessary to cease all contact with them to ensure your safety and well-being.
If you are in an abusive relationship, seek help from the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Call 800-799-7233 or text START to 88788 for help today.
You are not alone
Those who endure abuse by parents often bear a heavy burden of shame. Society tends to idolize parents, implying that parents are infallible and that their children should be grateful for their existence no matter what.
Because emotional trauma doesn’t leave visible scars, the unseen wounds are often dismissed as non-existent or easy to recover from “if you want to.”
But healing from chronic emotional trauma isn’t as simple as flipping a switch. You likely took years, perhaps even decades, to reach this point. So, recovering overnight is unrealistic.
But you’re not alone.
And you’re not crazy.
Emotional trauma inflicted by parents is real. It exists, and sadly, many others like you are going through the same thing.
But you won’t suffer from this condition forever. With support and help from others, and by working on it, you can recover and enjoy life.
Seek professional help
Seeking professional help is a crucial step in healing.
The real key to healing from unresolved childhood trauma is making sense of it and naming your feelings. That must be done safely, where you will receive support without judgment. A mental health professional can create that safe space for you, while it’d be hard to demand that from your friends or family.
With the guidance of a therapist or psychiatrist, you can learn to handle your symptoms better. They can help you develop healthy coping strategies and deal with other co-occurring disorders, like major depression, anxiety, or PTSD.
Also See: Free therapy in the US
Child trauma survivors often grapple with feelings of isolation and alienation. Support groups provide a unique platform where individuals can connect with others who have endured similar adverse experiences.
You will likely find a sense of community and understanding that is often hard to find elsewhere. In support groups, you can express your feelings and learn from others without fear of judgment or stigma.4
Read this book
Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence — from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror by Judith Herman, a pioneer in the field of CPTSD, is a highly recommended resource for victims of childhood trauma.
Herman outlines a detailed and insightful recovery process, which can serve as a roadmap for those working towards healing. The book empowers victims by providing them with the knowledge and tools to navigate their recovery process.
How to Help Children Heal from Childhood Trauma
How To Heal From Childhood Trauma
The following types of childhood trauma will likely result in emotional trauma from parents.
- Emotional abuse, such as berating, cursing, shaming, gaslighting, etc
- Coercion or threat of punishment
- Sexual abuse
- Child neglect
- Witnessing domestic violence
- Hostile fighting between parents
- Rejecting alienated parent
- Taking on age-inappropriate responsibilities (parentification)
- Family enmeshment
Trauma and stress
Emotional trauma isn’t necessarily the result of life-threatening events. For a child, ongoing, repetitive hardship, such as constantly being yelled at or threatened with severe consequences, creates toxic stress that can also cause trauma.
Therefore, emotional trauma is much more prevalent than most people might think.
Our bodies are wired to respond to extreme stress in ways that help us survive. In stressful situations, our nervous system produces more stress hormones as part of the stress response to trauma. This automatic response is also known as the fight-or-flight response.
Normally, after the traumatic situation has passed, our body returns to a stable equilibrium.
But if a child experiences trauma that’s too much for them to handle, or if it is recurring over a prolonged period, like in many cases of abuse or neglect, their nervous system can become overactive and stay that way.
The heightened levels of stress hormones may eventually cause a traumatized child to develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.
Victims of repetitive childhood trauma exposure will likely develop a more pervasive form of PTSD called complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD). Symptoms of CPTSD can persist into adulthood. This type of trauma in childhood is, therefore, called complex trauma.5
The nervous system is not the only thing that can be affected by emotional trauma. Chronic toxic stress can also impede normal brain development by changing the human brain structures, particularly in areas involved in regulating emotions, memory, and learning.
These changes can result in emotional dysregulation, impulsive or risky behavior, aggression, anxiety, nightmares, sleep disorders, and avoidance. Sometimes, they might also cause intrusive memories of abuse, emotional numbing, hypervigilance, and a pessimistic outlook on the world and their future.
The effects of trauma can present in a multitude of ways, but these signs are not uniform across all individuals who have experienced trauma. Consequently, they may be overlooked, resulting in those impacted not receiving the necessary support.
Our society is filled with people who exhibit signs of trauma.
For example, a study conducted in a women’s prison in the US revealed that 65% of the inmates reported having endured four or more traumatic experiences during their childhood. This figure was significantly higher than the 15.2% reported among women in the general population6.
This underscores the fact that childhood trauma is a risk factor and serious societal problem.
Understanding this association is not absolving those who have committed crimes of their responsibilities. Accountability for one’s actions is always necessary. However, these findings suggest that the environments in which these individuals were raised may have played a role in their paths to criminal behavior.
Parenting, therefore, cannot be underestimated. Providing children with a supportive and nurturing environment is essential to their healthy development.
- 1.Garland C. Understanding Trauma: A Psychoanalytical Approach. Routledge; 2018.
- 2.Sousa C, Herrenkohl TI, Moylan CA, et al. Longitudinal Study on the Effects of Child Abuse and Children’s Exposure to Domestic Violence, Parent-Child Attachments, and Antisocial Behavior in Adolescence. J Interpers Violence. Published online May 10, 2010:111-136. doi:10.1177/0886260510362883
- 3.Ulmer-Yaniv A, Djalovski A, Yirmiya K, Halevi G, Zagoory-Sharon O, Feldman R. Maternal immune and affiliative biomarkers and sensitive parenting mediate the effects of chronic early trauma on child anxiety. Psychol Med. Published online September 11, 2017:1020-1033. doi:10.1017/s0033291717002550
- 4.Herman JL. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. Hachette; 2015.
- 5.Milivojevic V, Sinha R. Central and Peripheral Biomarkers of Stress Response for Addiction Risk and Relapse Vulnerability. Trends in Molecular Medicine. Published online February 2018:173-186. doi:10.1016/j.molmed.2017.12.010
- 6.Stensrud RH, Gilbride DD, Bruinekool RM. The Childhood to Prison Pipeline: Early Childhood Trauma as Reported by a Prison Population. Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin. Published online May 15, 2018:195-208. doi:10.1177/0034355218774844