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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15 thoughts on “PTSD: What does my childhood have to do with it?

  1. What about a key latch kid from about age 8 who doesn’t have anyone home until after they go to bed? No knowledge on what to do with fears except to try and ride it out. Is the same reaction to a PTSD envoking event possible?

    1. Hi Michael!

      Great question! In those circumstances, you’d learn as a kid that you can’t count on anyone to help you with your fears, and you have to cope alone. It’s not quite the same, but similar in that you learn you can’t count on others for support.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Thanks for another fantastic post Dee! You raise some very important points that I would love to reinforce. This is something I do a lot of work around and often present on as it is such an important subject and one many don’t understand. The need for human connection (attachment) is not just a want it a luxury item but rather an innate need. We are born primed to seek attachment to others, to be loved, to be seen, to learn self-regulation through experiencing safety. We are also hard wired to flee danger and seek comfort from our secure base (initially our caregivers). When our caregivers are both the source of terror a paradox occurs. We have an impulse to turn towards them in terrifying circumstances (attachment wiring) which is in direct conflict with the impulse to flee (survival wiring). This is termed “fright without solution” (Levine & Kline, 2007, Siegel, 2013).

    That being said, I truly believe that people do the best that they can with what they know (no one sets out to be a ‘bad’ parent). Many I have met are eager to learn how to parent in a way that promotes resiliency, confidence, and optimal brain development. We are fortunate to have so much rich insight in this area due to advances in neuroscience (studies of the brain and how they respond to various factors).

    Awareness (although painful at times) is incredibly empowering. Being able to tune in to what you needed, how you felt, how you would have liked it to be different are all powerful validation tools. Although they don’t change anything they do validate you, your feelings, your needs and affirm that you matter. Recent research suggests that the best predictor of a parents attachment relationship with their child is their awareness and understanding of how their own early childhood relationships have laid the blueprint for how they relate to themselves, others, and the world around them (Siegel, 2013). Mindfulness, compassion for self, and a gentle awareness can be powerful tools for healing and forming meaning.

  3. Repeated, ongoing childhood trauma – from about 7 yrs until 18. I now am aware of the dissociation that has been my life for decades. I simply did not acknowledge that “I” was the one being abused. Marital abuse from 19 – 31. Violent experiences on the job for 30 yrs. It all started as a child. Decades later I see it. I KNEW it happened – I had never forgotten any of it – I just did not “experience” it. I let “her” have the pain – the one I watched from afar. Now I know I am her.

  4. Thank you for this post. I am experiencing exactly this scenario. My doctor started with my childhood. It helps to understand why this road to recovery is taking so much longer. Is it possible that the PTSD existed way back then and the adult trauma triggered it?

    1. Hi Ariane,

      Thanks for stopping by!

      With childhood trauma, there are two different possible scenarios: one, you develop PTSD in childhood. Two, you develop coping strategies that work at the time. In the second scenario, if these coping strategies become unavailable to you at some point in the future, you may end up with PTSD.

  5. There is a very real problem surrounding this issue for some. Take the adult who was abused as a child, or suffered from a traumatic incident as a child and who now has been diagnosed with PTSD due to work related traumatic incidents. In many Canadian provinces the workers compensation board is denying claims for PTSD because the employee was pre-disposed to the development of PTSD due to their childhood, or a bad early marriage, or any other traumatic thing that occurred to the employee except the actual work related traumatic incident. This issue further exacerbates the ability of the injured person to seek help because once again they discover that disclosing truth about things that happened to them = zero support.

    1. Rae,

      Thank you for sharing this very important point. I have actually worked with patients with workplace injuries for a few years, so I am familiar with this.

      As I pointed out in my response to the previous poster, with early trauma there are two possible scenarios: (1) the person can develop PTSD as a result of this early experience, or (2) the person can develop a coping style (as described in my post above) as a result of this early experience.

      Then, to use your example, the person goes on to experience a trauma in the workplace, and this trauma leads to new or worse symptoms of PTSD.

      In either case, the childhood trauma is not the cause of the PTSD that happened after the workplace injury. The test is always, “but for this workplace injury, would they be as sick as they are now”? How were they functioning before the workplace accident, as compared to how they are functioning afterwards? It’s important for the assessing psychologist make it very clear how the workplace injury is the cause of either new or worse symptoms.

  6. Thanks Dee. I’ve had a rough bout with dissociation recently (in and out of it). Terrified to be around others when in a compromised state like that– too many things have happened, made worse by being around others. Panic, distrust. Main reason I isolate so much. Probably had pts as a child, as likely did the whole family, for what happened to us all, in the home– chaos, no caregivers, violent, unsafe, fatality. . . work injuries later on. . .

    I often lurk silently, but I just want to let you know that I have found many of your posts helpful, validating; easing the stigma; the self-shame I experience associated with taking the beats; being ‘not on top of my game’ with pts struggle.

    Thank You.

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