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Childhood Trauma Therapy

What Constitutes Childhood Trauma?

Childhood experiences are crucial to our emotional development. Our parents, who are our primary attachment figures, play an important role in how we experience the world because they lay the foundation of what the world is going to look like for us. Is it a safe place to explore and take emotional risks? Are all people out to hurt us and therefore untrustworthy? Can we lean on important people in our lives to support us in times of emotional need?

Complex trauma refers to prolonged exposure to a stressful event. This would include children who have grown up in physically, sexually, and/or emotionally abusive households. Without the safety net of a secure attachment relationship, children grow up to become adults who struggle with feelings of low self-worth and challenges with emotional regulation. They also have an increased risk of developing depression and anxiety.

Childhood experiences lay the groundwork for what will be our general attachment style throughout our lives, how we bond with another person, as well as how we respond emotionally when that person is separated from us. The following are the four basic attachment styles. Please keep in mind that these descriptions are very general; not everyone will have all these characteristics. Attachment styles are relatively fluid and can change slightly depending on your partner's own attachment style.

Attachment Styles

Secure attachment.

These individuals usually grew up in a supportive environment where parents were consistently responsive to their needs. People who are securely attached are generally comfortable with being open about themselves, asking for help, and allowing others to lean on them at an emotional level. They have a positive outlook on life, are comfortable with closeness, and seek physical and/or emotional intimacy with minimal fear of being rejected or overwhelmed.

Securely attached individuals are generally consistent and reliable in their behaviors toward their partner. They tend to include their partner in decisions that could affect their relationship.

Dismissive-avoidant attachment.

Also referred to as "insecure-avoidant" children usually develop this attachment style when their primary caregivers are not responsive to or are even rejecting of their needs. Children learn to pull away emotionally as a way to avoid feelings of rejection. As adults, they become uncomfortable with emotional openness and may even deny to themselves their need for intimate relationships. They place high value on independence and autonomy and develop techniques to reduce feelings of being overwhelmed and defend themselves from a perceived threat to their independence. These techniques include, but are not limited to: shutting down; not saying "I love you" even though their behaviors indicate that they do (i.e., mixed messages); keeping secrets to maintain some semblance of independence. These coping techniques end up becoming detrimental to their adult relationships.

Fearful-avoidant attachment.

Also referred to as "disorganized-disoriented" in some literature, children who have developed this style may have been exposed to prolonged abuse and/or neglect. Primary caregivers are the people children often turn to as a source of comfort and support. In a situation involving abuse, these primary caregivers are also a source of hurt. These children grow up to become adults who fear intimacy within their relationships but also fear not having close relationships in their lives. They recognize the value of relationships and have a strong desire for them, but often have a difficult time trusting others. As a result, they avoid being emotionally open with others for fear of being hurt and rejected.

Anxious-preoccupied attachment.

Sometimes referred to as "insecure-ambivalent" children develop this form of attachment usually when their parents have been inconsistent with their responses to them. At times, these parents exhibit nurturing, caring, and attentive behaviors. Other times they can be cold, rejecting, or emotionally detached. As a result, the children don't know what to expect. They become adults who desire a lot of connection within their relationships, sometimes to the point of being "clingy". They are highly aware of any slight changes in the relationship. These changes, however minute, can significantly increase this individual's anxiety. As a result, he or she will focus energy on increasing connection with that partner. Individuals who have this attachment style needs more validation and approval than the other attachment styles.

Psychological Repercussions of Childhood Trauma

All forms of abuse have a negative impact on an individual’s life and victims often experience severe emotional and psychological problems as a result. Sexual abuse is no different. Children who have been sexually abused often experience emotional or developmental problems that make it difficult to develop relationships, focus, or control behavioral issues, as well as reducing performance in academic and social settings. Adults, on the other hand, often have problems trusting new people, forming healthy relationships in the future (they’ll often seek abusive behavior unknowingly) and increased risk of developing mental health issues, such as depression.

Sexual abuse has been linked to anxiety, anger issues, disassociation, mood and behavioral issues, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), shame, guilt, self-destructive behaviors, trust issues and even thoughts of suicide.

Methods Typically used in Therapy for Childhood Trauma.

As no two Childhood Trauma cases are exactly the same, the treatments vary wildly depending on the patient and the exact details of the assault. For example, a therapist wouldn’t often treat a college-aged date rape victim the same way he’d treat a child that suffered abuse at the hands of a family member.

Common treatments for abuse are:

Psychotherapy — or talk therapy — is often successful at treating victims of sexual abuse. The therapy revolves around the one on one relationship with the victim and the therapist. In the early stages of therapy, the therapist is more inclined to just listen which ensures that the victim moves at a pace in which they are comfortable with while developing trust in the process, and the therapist himself. This trust leads to the victim being more open and vocal about the situation so that the therapist can assess and determine the best course of treatment.

Medication – such as anti-depressants – are often used in accordance with therapy for victims of sexual abuse and/or assault. While these are rarely prescribed without on-going psychotherapy, the medication often helps to reduce thoughts of suicide or self-harm in the most extreme cases.

On-going support — such as group therapy — is typically the next step in the process. As the patient begins to heal the mental and physical wounds brought on by sexual misconduct, the therapist will often suggest group therapy as a supplemental therapy to their one-on-one sessions. Hearing the stories of other sexual abuse survivors as well as being able to provide support in a safe setting often helps the victim to put the pieces of their life back together and form new relationships.

Reasons for Hiring a Therapist.

Childhood Trauma is a tricky subject, and it’s often difficult for the victim to regain their "normal" life after experiencing such a traumatic event or series of events. Finding the right therapist will help you to regain a sense of normalcy that is often missing after victims recognize and separate from situations that could lead to additional trauma.

Neural pathways developed from childhood traumatic experiences help shape how we respond to others and adults often find themselves repeating the same behaviors and patterns throughout their lives. This is not meant to place blame on parents for the types of relationships you have as adults. Although parents play an important role in setting that foundation, you as an adult have the ability to create changes for yourself and your behaviors within any relationship.

It’s not uncommon for the victim to blame themselves or feel their own flaws or actions led to them being sexually assaulted or abused. A therapist will help you to recognize the actual patterns of abuse and show that the fault lies within the hands of the sexual abuser — not the victim. Through recognition of these behaviors, it also leads the affected party into healthy ways to form new relationships as opposed to subconsciously gravitating toward other abusers or those that display abusive behavior or patterns. It’s not uncommon for sexual abuse survivors to gravitate toward non-sexual abusive behavior after treatment. Since the sexual abuse is merely a symptom of the control that the abuser seeks, the victim will often subconsciously seek this sort of dangerous behavior after treatment.

Increased awareness can help you take those first steps towards change. By developing a better understanding of how your early childhood experiences have helped shape your attachment style and its connection to your present style of interactions, you can improve your relationships as an adult.  This awareness can then help you move towards developing a more securely attached relationship with those around you.

What to Look for in a Childhood Trauma Therapist.

In most cases, a therapist that specializes in sexual abuse is the best course of action for a victim. These therapists are well versed in these sorts of cases and have years of experience in dealing with the victims of sexual crimes or misconduct. If you can’t find a therapist that specializes in sexual abuse, it’s often best to contact a general therapy expert and ask for recommendations, or start attending group therapy sessions in your local area. In situations where none of the above is an option, trauma therapists and relational therapists are also often qualified to treat these types of cases.