Watching my grandchildren grow has been a mind-blowing and mind-expanding experience, from both a personal perspective and a psycho-therapeutic one as well. I have viewed the positive interactions between parent and child closely. I feel fortunate to have observed patient, kind, and empathetic responses from parents and noted how it directly relates to the positive emotional developmental growth of the child. Because of this consistent positive reinforcement, as well as random and conscious acts of loving kindness shared daily, my grandkids are happy and content.  

On the other hand, it had me thinking how psychologically damaging negatively reactive parental responses can be on the development of a child. Unfortunately, not all children are lucky enough to be the recipients of, as humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers posits, “unconditional positive regard.” Rogers believed that true catharsis can be attained when someone is prized as you would prize yourself. It is the unconditional “acceptance and support of a person regardless of what the person says or does,” and where “every person could achieve their goals, wishes and desires in life.”

Children who grow up in trauma defined as “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience” such as verbal, physical, sexual abuse, bullying, and/or neglect can internalize the mental, emotional and physical pain which can lead to a myriad of dysfunctional behaviors. 

Since a child is a concrete thinker from the age of five until approximately 11 years, and cannot think abstractly or outside the box until approximately age 12, they only see situations as black or white or all or nothing and often blame themselves, thinking “What did I do wrong?” or “It’s my fault” or “I wasn’t smart enough (strong enough, pretty enough, etc.)” and, “What will happen to me?” A child can also dissociate which is defined as “a disconnection between a person’s thoughts, memories, feelings, actions or a sense of who he or she is.” Dissociating can serve as a temporary emotional gift when a child experiences a traumatic event. It’s a psychological act of survival that helps a child cope when they do not have the mental capacity to understand what is happening to them. Children can become oppositional and defiant as a result of childhood trauma. Some may even become conduct-disordered individuals such as in the case of young school shooters.

When adults dissociate they can be viewed as emotionally distant, absent, shut off or shut down. Hence, relationships suffer. Since human beings usually like to do what’s familiar, I like to say, “If you don’t explore it, you’ll either become it or marry it.”

It is possible to heal the feelings of brokenness as an adult when you have suffered childhood or teenage trauma. Here are two important tips:

  • The first thing to realize is you don’t have to suffer in silence. You don’t have to navigate the pain alone. Reach out, someone is always there to listen, help, and offer support. Remember, our secrets can keep us sick.
  • It’s important to know we all have a child that lives within. People that have suffered emotional traumas as children may harbor a wounded child within. The inner child needs compassionate acknowledgment and a loving space for healing or it can wreak havoc in an adult’s life. A recommended book on this topic is Homecoming by John Bradshaw.

I fully believe that we can learn so much from our struggles. Our life’s challenges can serve as opportunities for growth in a multitude of ways. The first step is to step into firsts. Unravel the past and don’t let it define you. Let it empower you.

Dr. Amy is a licensed marriage and family therapist (MFC# 41252) and doctor of clinical psychology in Rancho Mirage. She can be reached at (760) 774.0047. 

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