Can PTSI (Injury) develop from tough or harmful experiences in childhood?

Most people have heard about PTSI that results from a car accident, combat, or other single events.  That is not the only kind of PTSI (injury), nor the only way PTSI can develop.  Another type of PTSI, is referred to as COMPLEX PTSI, (C-PTSI) or DEVELOPMENTAL PTSI, and is defined as exposure, before the age of 18, to multiple, chronic adverse life experiences and/or traumas during the developmental years (birth to leaving home). 

The 3 main tasks of a parent/primary caregiver are to nurture, protect, and provide sound guidance to the child as they develop.  That is what is required for the development of a psychologically healthy adult.  During our developmental years, we are part of relationships with our primary caregiver, other family members, or friends of the family, and eventually our own friends and their families.  Through these relationships we can experience wonderful, enriching life events and/or adverse life experiences or traumas, that that result in our fight or flight system turning on. Usually when our fight or flight system is turned on, it eventually turns off.  When trauma, abuse, neglect, or other adverse life experiences repeatedly occur in the years a child is growing up, the fight or flight system can stay on and remain on, even after we leave the situation or the threat. 

Examples of adverse life experiences or traumas can be intentional or unintentional and can include:

  • trauma 
  • abuse
  • neglect in providing food, clothing, shelter
  • absence of emotional guidance
  • exposure to frequent or consistent domestic violence, yelling, intimidation, threats of serious injury of death, ongoing substance abuse,
  • absence of caregiver (maybe due to medical illness) 
  • caregivers who are "high" and neglect the needs of the child
    leaving children home without an adult to care for them, 
  • leaving a child to care for other children, 
  • abandoning a child, 
  • using the child for the adult's emotional needs, 
  • manipulation of a child by an adult in order for the adult to experience the pleasure of having power over someone, 
  • using a child to complete an adult's sense of self

To be clear, there are a number of scenarios in which harm is not intentional. For example, a single-mother who must work to put food on the table may have to leave an older child to care for a younger child while she is working the night shift. She does not intend to harm her children.  If harm results, it was unintentional and, it is not absolute that C-PTSD will always result from such situations. Children are, however, at a greater likelihood of developing C-PTSD when they are exposed to such experiences.  It also might be the case that a parent has such adverse life events or traumas in their own childhood, that they may unknowingly develop C-PTSD and unintentionally role model it for their own child.  The parent may not be aware that they are doing so, or even experiencing problems as a result.  

The impact of threats, physical abuse, sexual abuse, abandonment, neglect, being demeaned or ostracized, etc. can show up throughout the lifespan in many ways, including disorders such as anxiety, depression, addictions, eating disorders, difficulties in relationships, and functioning below our true capacity at work or in academic pursuits.  Adverse life experiences are a predictor of the presence of chronic illness later in life. 

So, what can we do about this?  First, we must commit to learning more about our selves so we don't give these problems to our children and they to theirs.  Second, we must find the "authentic self" that is behind all of the problems and protections that C-PTSD brings to have the richest , most fulfilling, happiest life we can.

As an adult, when we, consciously or unconsciously, perceive a threat that is, in any way, similar to a threat we experienced as a child, we automatically use the using coping skills that we developed to survive the adverse life events and traumas when we were a child. In other words, consider a child growing up in a home with a parent who manipulates for the sheer joy in feeling power over someone else.  Now, imagine that child as an adult.  If that adult detects any sign of manipulation, their adult response will be the same as their child response to manipulation.  Let's assume that the child's response was to become submissive and deny the painful emotions that resulted. In other words they learned to "stuff their feelings" instead of express them.  That is how they learned to survive while being under the control of an unhealthy parent/person which was their world as a child.  Because they are not conscious that they "stuffed their feelings" to survive childhood under an unhealthy parent, because it feels "normal" to them, they will respond in the same way as an adult.  Although that response helped them to survive the chaos as a child, now they are in control of their survival as an adult.   No one has control over them.  They are in control of their own agency (choices, preferences, ideas, responses). As an adult,  they can speak their truth without fear of retaliation. 

The answer to living the the kind of life we want to live, is to examine and revise the "survival skills" so they are effective and lead us towards living in an authentic way that contributes to our quality of relationships and life.

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Kim P. Frey, PhD, LCSW




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