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Interview: Exploring Childhood Trauma and Its Impact on Adulthood

By Catherine Gibson

We sat down with play therapist Catherine Gibson, LPC and owner of Play Therapy Sumter, to unpack what childhood trauma means and how it shows up in our later years.

Catherine is located in Sumter, South Carolina, and found her way to child therapy after looking at her own childhood. She had supportive and loving parents but hated school because of the interpersonal dynamics. She realized she wanted to be someone who could help others with those types of feelings. She originally thought it looked like becoming a teacher, but after reading a romance novel one day where the protagonist was a child psychologist, she changed her mind.

“I didn’t know that was a thing you could do – just be a therapist for kids. I haven’t looked back since.” 

Outside of work, Catherine loves reading and has recently gotten into yoga. As a therapist, she often carries the weight of all those stories she hears and has made an increased effort to care for herself too.

Therapists, they’re just like us. 

She also connects regularly with her therapist – a reminder that we’re never done with working on ourselves mentally and physically. It’s a daily practice. 

Grab your notebook – this is an in-depth and informational interview full of amazing insight on a topic that deserves much attention. 

What are some examples of childhood trauma? 

Oh, I love when I get this question.

We’ve come so far in the research and understanding of trauma; it’s key first to understand that trauma doesn’t happen to us. It’s our mind and body’s response to something traumatic. In childhood, that can look extreme, like neglect or physical abuse. Poverty is also a trauma, especially in childhood, because it puts you in a place where you are always surviving, never fully getting what you need.

Childhood trauma can be an emotionally unresponsive parent. Kids are constantly trying to connect with their caregivers. It’s one of the blessings of the parent/child relationship. They’re always trying to reach out, reconnect – especially after there’s yelling or a response they don’t like. 

However, if a kid is always trying to connect and the parent doesn’t reach out to close the loop, they never feel seen or heard. That is trauma. It shifts how we learn to interact with people in the world. At a young age, the child learns that people aren’t going to meet their needs, and they have to do that themselves. You then end up with adults on the extreme end of things.

They tend to be either hyper-independent and emotionally unavailable because they’ve shoved all their feelings down, OR they throw their feelings around everywhere and on everyone because they never learned how to manage that, so they’re just throwing darts at the board, praying one sticks one day. Parental relationships aren’t the only thing that can cause this; other events that kids experience can be traumatizing, like bullying at school, school shootings, teachers who pick on kids, car wrecks, animal bites, or the deaths of close friends and family. All of these things can trigger a trauma response, and if children don’t have the support needed to deal with it as a child, it can turn into trauma that sticks with them as adults.

People like to talk about how kids are resilient. Kids aren’t resilient, they are highly adaptable, and they will adapt the best way they know how, and their adaptation may serve them for a time, but eventually, it will cause problems. Resilience is being able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult circumstances. Without support, we don’t recover; we just adapt ourselves to make it work. 

How can childhood trauma impact a person’s overall mental health and well-being in adulthood? 

Unresolved childhood trauma affects everything. The correlation, especially among women, between childhood trauma and autoimmune disorders is too high to be a coincidence. This means that childhood trauma affects our bodies’ ability to function how we need it to because we’re in this constant arousal state. This leads to our bodies developing disorders that affect us, and there isn’t just one autoimmune disease it’s correlated to – it’s across the board.

It also affects how we are in a relationship with people. Trauma demands someone sit with us and witness our pain. If we don’t have that, we can become people who don’t know what is appropriate to share and become chronic oversharers because we want so badly for someone to connect to us. It also numbs our emotions so we don’t feel things like shame or embarrassment as acutely. We don’t realize our oversharing makes someone else uncomfortable because our threshold for discomfort is so high.

It can swing the other way too, and we become hyper-independent and intolerable of emotions – denying our own and being annoyed by others. It’s that inner feeling of recoiling from someone who is crying or oversharing with us. That feeling can be related to childhood trauma. It strongly affects our parenting. Your child is going to trigger all of your stuff. They’re going to poke at all of your discomforts, and if you had a traumatic childhood yourself, there’s more to poke at, so you could find yourself being so impatient with your child, annoyed at their displays of feelings, and just frustrated that they don’t get it.

I want to be clear that if you’re here in any way, it’s okay. Your child is going to be fine, and so are you; we just need to add to your support team so you can parent how you want to instead of how you have to. 

What common signs and symptoms of unresolved childhood trauma should we be aware of?

This one is a little hard to sort out. Depression, anxiety, anger, and avoidance can be signs of childhood trauma. Although just because you have anxiety or depression, it doesn’t mean you’ve also experienced trauma. 

It might look like problems with trusting others, difficulty making secure relationships and attachments, and being hyper-aware of other people’s reactions and responses. If you identify as an empath, you might also want to look at the emotional environment of the home you grew up in. It’s possible that you developed those skills because you kept yourself emotionally safe by being hyper-attuned to the moods and feelings of the people around you. This doesn’t mean there was physical violence in the home, but it does mean you didn’t feel safe emotionally.

Then there are the physical things like autoimmune disorders, diabetes, stroke, coronary artery disease, and asthma that can all be related to childhood trauma. Again it doesn’t mean that your medical condition is caused by childhood trauma, but if you ask this question and fall into these categories, it’s worth a closer look at your childhood.

I also want to be clear that you can have childhood trauma and acknowledge that your parents loved you and did their best. Sometimes parents traumatize their children because they never acknowledge their trauma histories, so they pass that on. 

How can therapy or counseling help individuals who have experienced childhood trauma? What specific approaches or techniques are commonly used? 

Therapy isn’t going to make the trauma go away. So let’s start there. It happened, and it’s a part of your story. We can’t carve that out and pretend it didn’t happen. Therapy and counseling can help you put that trauma into its right size.

Unresolved trauma takes up so much space. It feels like this giant boulder hanging out in our living room. Counseling can help you move that boulder into the size of a stone or pebble. It’s still yours, it’s still there, but now we see it inside its proper context. We can hold it and look at it without feeling overwhelmed by it. We can kick it or maybe get tripped up by it, and it isn’t going to ruin our day. It helps us be aware of how it affects us so we can stop and choose how we respond.

There are many good approaches and techniques to treat trauma, but the first thing is ensuring the relationship between you and your therapist feels good. We know through research that the most significant impact on the effectiveness of treatment is the relationship between the therapist and the client. The therapist can be the world’s best at a technique, but the outcomes aren’t as good if that relationship isn’t there. 

There’s a lot of exciting research around trauma work. EMDR is a great technique. If talking about your trauma and telling the whole story feels too daunting, EMDR might be a good option. You and your therapist touch on the story, but most of the processing is internal.

As a play therapist, I am a big fan of non-directive child-centered play therapy; yes, it’s for adults too. Doing the work through play can help you touch the places in your brain and body where the trauma is stored and resolve it. There are also more traditional talk therapies like Cognitive Processing Therapy. In this therapy, you deal with your story directly. It involves writing and reviewing your experiences with a therapist throughout multiple sessions. Each session has a unique structure, but addressing your story in written form is the primary theme. 

I would also add other non-traditional therapies as options. You can find a yoga studio with a trauma-informed class and instructor, do reiki work, and massage therapy; there is even something called hoop yogini that I’ve had my clients participate in, in addition to talk therapy. Art therapy may be a good supplement as well.

We can hold childhood trauma in so many different ways and places. Adding in supplemental therapies like this can help us unlock places where we’re stuck in talk therapy. These options are often offered in group settings because they’re meant to add to your work individually. 

Are there any potential long-term effects of childhood trauma that may arise later in life, and how can these be addressed? 

Assuming that you have done the work to resolve the childhood trauma, there will still be times and places it comes up. Whenever we move into a new developmental stage of life (this doesn’t stop at puberty; we have developmental stages until we die), our traumatic experiences can show up in new ways. This is because as we develop as people, it causes us to look at things differently and realize something we missed in the past. The hope is that when that happens, it’s not life-altering. That you have done the work previously, so you can look at the trauma, notice how it’s showing up in new ways and use all your beautiful coping skills to manage it.

If it’s still work that you need to do and you haven’t found a way to approach it yet, it can create challenges for you down the road. Trauma can negatively impact relationships, making us feel increasingly alone or isolated. It can also make things like wound healing and recovery from illness and medical procedures longer with less favorable outcomes. 

What are some strategies or coping mechanisms that can be helpful for individuals who have experienced childhood trauma in managing their emotions and triggers? 

I love a good coping skill toolbox. You want various things to use in different situations because, just like real tools, each does something different for you. The two beginner tools I recommend revolve around breathing work and a grounding technique.

Box breathing is a simple one. You can either imagine or physically draw a box on a page. Each line has a role, which should take 3-5 seconds to complete depending on your body’s ability.

  • You breathe in for 3-5 seconds
  • Pause for 3-5 seconds
  • Exhale for 3-5 seconds, and
  • Pause for 3-5 seconds.

You want to do this for 6-10 rounds – sometimes a 3-second pause feels like an eternity, and sometimes 5 seconds feels right. What’s important is that your inhale, exhale, and pauses are all the same amount of time. This breath work helps calm our nervous system and get us back into our parasympathetic nervous system, or our rest and digest space.

I recommend breathing when angry, anxious, frustrated, panicked, or overwhelmed. It works best if you practice this breath when you are in a state of calm. So start using it when lying in bed at night, sitting on the couch watching tv, or doing some other activity that relaxes you. It helps you get a handle on the process at a time when you can focus instead of trying to figure it out mid-triggering moment. 

There are two grounding techniques that are very simple to do. The first one is to recite something to yourself. Something that you can pull from memory and, in general, is boring; the steps for a recipe, a favorite poem, your grocery list. We know our brains can’t do this task and be highly emotional. So you are forcing your brain to calm down and focus on something concrete, which is what all grounding techniques are built to do. 

Another great one is picking a sense (sight, touch, taste, smell, sound) and naming five things in your space that align to those. You can choose a color and find five things around you that are that color. The goal is to get your logical brain back online so you’re back in your body and in control.

When we get triggered, our logical brain turns off, and our emotional brain turns on. We’re no longer making rational decisions. Because our logical brain is offline, we want our coping mechanisms to be simple and easily remembered. The number one thing I hear from patients is that coping skills don’t work for me. I’ve tried breathing, I’ve tried grounding, I’ve tried it all. Often, we’re only trying these when deep in a situation; we need to practice them or start them at the beginning of the trigger. The more you practice and use the skill, the better you will find they work for you.

So if you’ve tried these, gotten frustrated, and given up, try returning to them and sticking with them. Our brains are beautiful and amazing but aren’t always our best friends. It can be more like a 2-year-old throwing a tantrum in our triggered moments. It can feel overwhelming and out of control, and if we get too far into the tantrum, our only option is to ride the wave to the end or do something that completely shocks our system, like putting our face in a bowl of ice water (which I don’t recommend you do with an actual 2-year-old). Dipping our face in water triggers our body to slow down our heart rate immediately and starts a different system to care for ourselves. So try this if you find yourself mid-panic attack and can’t get out. 

How can family members or loved ones support someone who has experienced childhood trauma? 

Some people don’t have any traumatic experiences, so it can be hard for family and friends to get what someone is going through. They don’t have a frame of reference.

If someone you love has experienced childhood trauma, ask them what they’re experiencing in those moments. Have them go into detail and tell you when they’re triggered. Ask them what coping skills they use during those moments. Ask them for guidance on how you can help. 

If you have a loved one dealing with a lot of trauma, ask them if they want to talk or just sit with you when they come to you in crisis. Our natural response when someone we love is struggling is to fix it as quickly as possible, but that isn’t always helpful or possible. To avoid increased frustration on both ends, create a plan together. 

Childhood trauma profoundly impacts individuals’ lives, shaping their mental health and overall well-being. Through therapy approaches, coping mechanisms, and unwavering support from loved ones, trauma survivors can navigate the challenges and effects of childhood trauma. By raising awareness and fostering understanding, we can create a more compassionate and healing environment for those on their journey to recovery.

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