The Hidden Costs of Childhood Trauma

If my childhood was so great, why do I feel so bad?

When we hear the word trauma, we normally think of a catastrophic event, an accident or violent assault or the overwhelming experiences of combat veterans.

But trauma can be something that we don’t even remember.

When people come to my therapy rooms, they rarely say that they had a traumatic childhood.

For some, perhaps, it is obvious that they were abused.

They may have experienced incest, extreme deprivation, violence or abandonment. It is hard for people with these experiences to even get to therapy, but some do.

But for most people with complex trauma, their memories of childhood are scant, perhaps rose-coloured.

They were “adequately” cared for and grew up with food on the table, clothes and toys, an education and a warm bed at night.

But as we dig deeper, there is always something missing.


I never ask my clients whether they were loved by their parents - or whether they in turn, love them.


Because the answers I get tell me nothing about the reality of their childhood experiences.

We all tend to assume that we were loved as children and that our parents were “good enough” because the alternative is far too frightening.

We don’t want to acknowledge that perhaps we weren’t loved or that our childhoods were less than the perfect picture we seem to remember.

To ask these questions is to bring to the surface unconscious fears that we are unloveable.

Attachment theory tells us that young children are unable to incorporate the failures of parents who were not good enough into their understanding and memories.

Memory of emotional abuse in childhood is not easily unpicked.

Traumatic memories from abuse in childhood are held in areas of the brain where they are unable to be recalled or accessed. But they contribute to a “felt sense” of being unworthy, unloveable and feelings of chronic shame.

When we are children, our attachment relationships are vital to our survival.

To realise that our parents are not perfect is to jeopardise our relationships and threaten our survival.

We are caught in a bind.

We must maintain our relationship, but our attachment figure is unavailable, unreliable, inconsistent, distracted or worse, frightening.

Because they are “hardwired” for attachment, infants will adapt to even the most hostile environment in order to survive.

Although this works for us in the short term, it leaves us with a residue of coping strategies that change our responses and our access to our true feelings and needs.

We become “survival oriented.”

This hardwired pattern of responses is accompanied by hypervigilance, an overactive startle response, diminished capacity to handle stress and an overwhelming sense that the world is dangerous.

For people who have CPTSD, their identity has been forged in the crucible of an abusive environment where they were unloved, and where they were often shamed and manipulated by attachment figures.

As adults, people with complex trauma live alongside chronic shame and ongoing feelings of unworthiness. They are haunted by the idea that they are, underneath it all, unloveable.

To face the reality of childhood emotional abuse is difficult, confronting, challenging and painful. It brings up feelings that we would rather not deal with.

That is why it is so hard to recognise.

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A disclaimer:

In discussing parental emotional abuse, I do not mean the accidental or well-meaning failures of parents who couldn’t answer a child’s cries once or twice, but ongoing failures resulting from problems that parents might have in relating to their child. This can often be caused by intergenerational trauma.

The failures of parents who have experienced trauma themselves may be inadvertent, but will reflect the limitations within a parent’s mental state or personality which limit their ability mean to respond to a child’s emotional needs. Anxiety, depression and a history of trauma will all affect a parent’s ability to respond to a child, but more commonplace stressors such as job loss, financial instability, physical illness, grief or domestic violence can also lead to problems for parents as they struggle to balance the many demands placed on them.