Normal Family, Hidden Trauma

My traumatized clients are often apologetic and puzzled about their trauma.

They say things like “My family seemed so normal. Nobody abused me or hit me. I can’t work out why I feel so traumatized – maybe there’s something wrong with me that I feel so messed up. Maybe you think I’m exaggerating and I shouldn’t even be seeing you.”

My clients are puzzled because there is a widespread misconception about trauma. The misunderstanding is that traumatization only occurs when there has been some kind of overt abuse. But that is not the case.

What creates trauma is feeling totally isolated and alone in a life-threatening situation. We don’t have to be abused to grow up in families where we feel so emotionally disconnected that it makes us fear deep down that our parents could easily just abandon us. And for a young child, the fear of abandonment always triggers a deep, primal fear that they won’t survive.

So anyone who grows up feeling not loved, or not seen and loved for who they actually are, will feel emotionally isolated. They will feel even more isolated if their parents are also distant, demanding, critical, or need them to be someone other than who they are. In these kinds of circumstances, a loving bond between parent and child is very much missing.

When this situation persists for the whole of childhood, it creates complex trauma. While no one incident of disconnection is traumatizing, the cumulative effect of year after year of such isolating treatment most certainly is.

I find that this kind of abandonment trauma is very common, and is almost predictable when we look at the way we think children should be raised in the West. Our childrearing practices are actually very harsh compared with most other cultures, past and present.

A study recently came out that showed that accepted methods of Western parenting actually PREVENT healthy brain and emotional development in children, causing “an epidemic of anxiety and depression among all age groups, including young children; rising rates of aggressive behavior and delinquency in young children; and decreasing empathy, the backbone of compassionate, moral behavior in young adults…” To which I would add trauma.

So how do we create so much damage.

We routinely isolate babies and young children from physical contact with parents. We expect them to sleep alone, often in a room by themselves, from birth onwards. We let our babies “cry it out”. We often put them in childcare at a few weeks of age. By the time they go to school, they usually spend most of the day away from us. We are afraid of not being in control of our children, so we do what we can to control them. We are obsessed with disciplining and punishing children, rather than simply loving and accepting them the way they are.

And all this is considered so “normal” that we don’t see how painfully we emotionally reject and isolate out children.

So if you imagine you grew up in a “normal” family, it’s important to understand that our current definition of “normal” is actually quite abnormal, and almost guaranteed to cause emotional distress. So there is a very good reason to feel messed up by the trauma hiding in plain sight in “normal” families.

By the way, I never think my clients are exaggerating, and I always affirm that even if they don’t yet understand all the reasons for their distress, it IS real, and they absolutely deserve to find help to heal it.

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