PTSD: What does my childhood have to do with it?

This is a question I run into pretty regularly.

When your PTSD was caused by adulthood trauma, you may wonder why your psychologist asks about your childhood: if your trauma happened decades later, then why do they care what your childhood was like?

Fair question. Here’s the answer.

Imagine an awesome childhood. This imaginary child falls and scrapes her knee. What does she do?

Well – she runs to her caregiver for comfort. She does this any time that she’s hurt, scared, or unsure of herself.

Over the years, she learns that it’s safe to tell others that she’s hurt or scared, and that others will react by soothing and comforting her. Over years of being comforted and soothed by a caregiver, she also learns healthy ways to comfort and soothe herself.

Good for her, right?

Many of us didn’t have such a childhood; many were abused as kids.

When a kid grows up abused, they learn that showing their feelings is a bad idea: if people know what you’re feeling, they can use your feelings against you.

Say you’re an abused child, and you’re scared of spiders. You’re actually scared twice: one, you’re scared of spiders themselves. And two, you’re scared that someone will see that you’re scared of spiders; if they do, they’ll use this knowledge to hurt you.

Say you like butterflies. You learn not to show it, because your abusers would hurt one just to make you suffer.

(Hey, how are you doing? If this is reminding you of some bad memories – stop, take a deep breath, look around the room, and remind yourself that that was then and this is now. It’s not happening anymore, and you’re here now.)

Even if a child isn’t abused, growing up with a caregiver who is not able to soothe and comfort them can have the same result: the child learns that “If I show mommy that I’m sad or scared, she’ll get sad/scared/mad”. So – she learns that her own feelings are dangerous – they can either be used to hurt her, or hurt other people.

What this child doesn’t learn is how to comfort and soothe herself if she’s feeling overwhelmed.

Fast forward a few decades; both of these imaginary children are now grown women. Both go through the same trauma.

At first, both of them will be pretty rattled; but the one who had the picture-perfect childhood will know how to comfort and soothe herself, and reach out to get help.

The other woman will react by feeling rattled that she’s feeling rattled. She may also feel ashamed, weak, and like she’s a failure. She’ll do everything she can to cover up and hide how she’s feeling. If she can’t hide her feelings, this will make her feel like she’s in danger. Reaching out to get help from other people will be really hard for her, because she learned at a young age that other people can’t be trusted, and they’re only likely to hurt her.

For her, the path to recovery will be much longer. She’ll need to work hard to unlearn some of the “truths” she learned when she was little, just to be able to accept help.

This doesn’t mean she can’t get better – and I’ve personally seen some of these guys and gals do some amazing things. It’s just a longer, tougher fight for them to get there.


I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…

You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.


*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

**Really fine print: The content of Coming Back Home is copyrighted; please feel free to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is copyrighted. The photo gracing today’s post was taken by Wojtek Rajski, and I’d like to thank him for generously allowing me to use his work. Please do not copy photographs from Coming Back Home without permission.

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