Often I’ll receive emails or comments on my blog posts asking me questions to the effect of, “Annie, this is what happened to me in my childhood. So was my childhood traumatic?”
The answer to this question is never simple. It’s complex. And it bears answering in a thoughtful, deliberate way.
If you, like so many of my readers, have ever asked this question about your own past, today’s essay is for you.
Was my childhood traumatic?
First, I want to acknowledge that if you’re even asking this question, there’s some small part of you that already has the answers you may need.
In my experience, people who don’t come from abusive, dysfunctional, or traumatic childhoods don’t even entertain this question.
They barely let the thought occupy a moment of their time, it takes up no real estate in their mind.
They feel secure and comfortable in their experience and wouldn’t ever call it traumatic.
They see that question on the screen or hear it spoken out loud, and they move on.
But for those of us who come from dysfunctional, abusive, or chaotic backgrounds, even if we gloss over the question initially, it boomerangs. It comes back.
It feels stickier, less clear, foggier.
It rebounds in our mind, in our heart, our psyche.
The question begs our attention: “Was my childhood traumatic?”
It’s not a comfortable question, is it?
And to answer it, should we choose to give the question our attention, we can consider a few things:
- What is the definition of trauma?
- What does the ACE’s study have to say about my background?
- What is my subjective reality?
Let’s unpack each of these considerations.
What is the definition of trauma?
In my decade of clinical work, the best definition I’ve found of trauma is this:
There are two parts of this definition that I want to highlight.
First, “trauma is the unique individual experience.”
By this definition we see that psychological trauma is subjective and relative – meaning what makes something traumatic for one person may not be traumatic for another depending on what our ability to deal with it is (more on this later in the essay).
The key, though, across subjective experiences, is that it overwhelms the individual’s ability to cope with it.
That’s what makes something traumatic – the fact that it overwhelms our ability to cope.
And there’s another part of this definition that I want to draw attention to: “enduring conditions.”
Typically and historically, trauma has been thought of as an isolated and discrete event: a car crash, a bombing, a rape, military service.
And certainly, all of these are examples of what could be traumatic for someone.
But Karen Saakvitne, Ph.D., a distinguished trauma therapist and author, also nuances that trauma can be a set of enduring conditions.
Enduring conditions are complex and protracted, meaning they take place repeatedly over time and they include more than one event.
For children who are powerless and who depend on their caregivers quite literally to preserve their young lives, examples of traumatic enduring conditions could be:
- Abandonment or threat of abandonment;
- Neglectful treatment or conditions;
- Outright verbal, emotional, or physical abuse;
- Witnessing domestic violence or frightened or frightening behavior from one or both parents.
So in what context might these traumatic enduring conditions occur?
Often, unfortunately, these events can happen if you were raised by a personality-disordered, mood-disordered, or addicted parent(s) or parental figure(s).
Being raised by a narcissistic mother or an alcoholic father (to name just two examples) can certainly set the stage for traumatic enduring conditions – they are so, so many more conditions that can create similar responses.
But this – being raised by personality or mood-disordered parents or enduring conditions that lead to trauma – is often not generally understood to be a classical traumatic experience which is why I spend so much time and energy on this website talking about it.
So, if you’re asking yourself, “Was my childhood traumatic?”, I want you to reflect on this definition of trauma.
I’ll ask you questions in the journaling prompts that accompany this essay to help you reflect on this and unpack it further.
What does the ACE Study Have To Say About My Childhood?
The ACE Study – the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study conducted between 1995-1997 – was and is one of the largest and data-rich data sets that explored correlations between challenging early childhood events and later health outcomes for individuals.
The study may be old, but it’s fascinating and has informed trauma-informed care for many mental health and medical health professionals since.
One reason why I think the ACE study is interesting and worth considering in the context of this essay is that it asks a series of questions that have been validated and affirmed by the CDC and Kaiser.
If you don’t know if your childhood was traumatic, you can take the ACE quiz and see what your results are.
This can be a powerful validation tool.
What you may dismiss, diminish, or otherwise write off (“Everyone’s parents fought and yelled at each other, right?”), the ACE study calls out and effectively says, “No, actually what you went through we objectively consider an adverse early experience. We consider that traumatic.”
So if you wonder if your childhood was traumatic, please consider taking the ACE quiz and then be sure to reflect on the journaling prompts that accompany this article to deepen your exploration.
What is my subjective reality?
Importantly, when you’re asking the question, “Was my childhood traumatic?” you must prioritize your subjective experience over any other objective measuring tool or opinion.
What do I mean by this?
Recall earlier in this essay how I shared the definition of trauma and it included the phrase: “Trauma is the unique individual experience of an event or enduring conditions.”
The unique individual experience piece of this sentence is critical to consider.
What may feel and be traumatic to you may not be to another person and vice versa.
Your subjective experience – meaning your unique individual experience, your own reality – is part of what determines whether something felt traumatic or not.
For instance, you may have been raised by a sociopathic father and one of your siblings disagrees that your childhood was traumatic, but to you it was. You may feel confused and doubt yourself and your experience: “If my brother didn’t think it was traumatic, was it really?”
But the answer is this: if it felt traumatic to you, it was. That was your subjective experience even though someone else disagreed with you.
There is no objective opinion of what makes something traumatic or not. It’s up to you to define.
You and I will unpack this more in the journaling prompts below.
Now, as we close this essay I want to say two things to you:
One, if you googled this phrase, “Was my childhood traumatic?” and landed upon this essay, trust that some part of you already knows the answer to this question.
And second, please know that this question actually is very important to ask and truly sit with, even though it feels uncomfortable.
My next essay will address why it’s important to ask this question and what it can mean for you, so if you’re not already signed up on my mailing list, please do sign up so you can receive the next essay two weeks from now.
And if you would like to take today’s essay even further, please explore the reflection and journaling prompts below to help deepen your understanding, awareness, and self-reflection.
Until next time, please take very good care of yourself.