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When Parents Live in Denial: Healing From Developmental Trauma

As an adult, living with the implications of childhood trauma can make you feel like you are alone in your pain. It can be difficult to imagine that anyone can understand what you have been through or what you are going through now. While everyone’s experiences are unique to them, you are not alone in experiencing developmental trauma. Unfortunately, as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) notes, one in seven children will experience abuse and or neglect in any given year. Moreover, despite two-thirds of children reporting at least one traumatic event by age sixteen, healing from developmental trauma is possible.

At The Guest House, we know deep-seated trauma can be difficult to identify and understand. Thus, healing from developmental trauma, especially in adulthood, can be wrought with challenges. Trying to grasp trauma that happened in your early developmental years can feel daunting. When you are a child, you yearn to learn and understand the world you are in. Trauma disrupts that development and opens the door to unhealthy coping strategies.

No matter how much time has passed, if trauma is left unaddressed, it can lead to long-lasting harm. Developmental trauma can impede your ability to function in your daily life, strain relationships, and rob you of a fulfilling life. Further, it can be particularly upsetting and confusing when the people who caused your trauma deny that they did anything wrong during your childhood. However, with support, healing from developmental trauma is achievable for your long-term recovery.

Here at The Guest House, we believe uncovering the roots of your trauma can help you understand the source of your self-defeating behaviors. While developmental trauma in many cases can be difficult to recall, it still manifests itself in your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as an adult. Therefore, by understanding where the pain is coming from, you can build tools to process and dismantle the self-defeating behaviors rooted in the trauma.

What Is Developmental Trauma?

According to an article from the Frontiers in Psychiatry, developmental trauma is defined as exposure to life-threatening events in infancy and early childhood. Exposure to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) has a significant impact on important developmental processes. For example, ACEs can:

  • Disrupt interpersonal attachments
    • Threatens core beliefs in lovability, family, and friendships
  • Damage your ability to feel safe and secure
  • Impair your capacity for cognitive, behavioral, and emotional control

The disruption of important periods for brain development creates difficulties in children’s lives. Many children who are exposed to abuse and neglect, especially from their caregivers, have difficulties relating to others and regulating emotions and behaviors. Children more so than adults are less likely to have the cognitive ability to understand and respond to traumatic events effectively. While children are often resilient to trauma, a lack of connection and protection from caregivers further impedes a child’s ability to adapt to stressors.

You may not recall many of your early traumatic experiences to realize how they continue to negatively impact you now. Perhaps you experienced painful repeated and prolonged traumatic experiences during childhood which now set the tone for your current relationships and interpersonal behavior. If your caregivers were consistently abusive and or neglectful, you may have not been aware that such experiences would lead to long-term harm. Thus, recognizing those traumatic experiences can be the first step toward healing from developmental trauma.

Recognizing the Signs of Parental Neglect and Abuse

Although trauma can stem from non-interpersonal trauma like natural disasters, many ACEs stem from interpersonal trauma. Interpersonal traumas are traumas that happen due to interactions between people. As noted in the European Journal of Psychotraumatology, interpersonal trauma involves traumatic experiences like emotional abuse, emotional neglect, physical abuse, physical neglect, and sexual abuse. Some interpersonal traumas from early childhood may be easier to recognize, such as some types of sexual and physical abuse.

Whereas, other forms of trauma like emotional abuse and neglect can be harder to pinpoint. According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, the four main types of maltreatment can happen separately or in combination with each other. The co-occurrence of ACEs can further complicate your ability to recognize the traumas your parent or caregiver caused you. Deepening your understanding of the four main types of maltreatment can support healing from developmental trauma. These include:

  • Physical abuse: Intentionally causing physical injury or harm to a child
    • Punching
    • Kicking
    • Choking
    • Burning
    • Shaking
  • Emotional abuse: Highlights a pattern of behavior that impairs a child’s emotional development and sense of self-worth
    • Constant criticism and or putdowns
    • Frequent threats
    • Rejection
    • Purposely withholds:
      • Love
      • Support
      • Guidance
  • Sexual abuse: Engaging in sexual activity with a child
    • Fondling genitals
    • Indecent exposure
    • Penetration
    • Sodomy
    • Rape
    • Incest
    • Exploitation
      • Prostitution
      • Pornographic materials
  • Physical and emotional neglect: Failing to provide basic needs for a child
    • Physical neglect includes:
      • Failing to provide food, adequate shelter, and appropriate supervision
    • Emotional neglect includes:
      • Inattention to a child’s emotional needs
      • Allowing access to unsafe substances, including alcohol or other drugs
    • Medical neglect includes:
      • Failing to provide medical and or mental health care
      • Purposely withholding medical treatment for life-threatening conditions
    • Educational neglect includes:
      • Failing to provide an education or attend specialized educational services

Knowing some of the types of development trauma can help you recognize the different traumas you may have experienced in childhood. When you recognize that you have experienced developmental trauma, you can start addressing how those traumas have impacted you. Moreover, knowing different types of developmental trauma allows you to recognize the dysfunctional patterns of trauma in your family. Put more simply, by becoming familiar with examples of developmental trauma, you are better able to acknowledge present family dysfunction and the quality of your relationships with your relatives.

Addressing Healing From Developmental Trauma in Dysfunctional Family

As noted in Medicine, family functioning has a significant impact on your emotional and physical health. The relationships you share with close family members like parents and siblings can act as a source of social support. Family as a social support system can be an important tool for resiliency to the stressors of life. Furthermore, access to healthy supportive relationships allows you to learn and teach each other how to work through difficult things together.

Supportive family relationships increase your sense of belonging and purpose as you have people to share and celebrate your successes with. Thus, healthy family dynamics are evaluated through the six dimensions of family functioning:

  • Problem-solving: Ability to solve problems
  • Communication: Ability to effectively share information
  • Roles: Clarity and appropriateness of family roles, including an even distribution of tasks and responsibilities
  • Affective responsiveness: Appropriate emotional responses to different situations
  • Behavioral control: Ability to express and maintain healthy standards of behavior
  • Affective involvement: Taking an interest in and valuing each other’s activities and concerns

A family’s ability to effectively engage in the six dimensions of family functioning is important for family and individual health. While misunderstandings and disagreements are normal without healthy relationships and interactions, dysfunction often takes root. In healthy dynamics, conflicts are minor and are able to be resolved with constructive communication. However, dysfunctional and unhealthy patterns arise when multiple areas of family functioning are impaired.

Although parents and caregivers are not perfect, it is important to recognize the difference between normal dysfunction and traumatic dysfunction. Recognizing traumatic dysfunction is particularly important when people deny your experiences and distress. Having parents, caregivers, or another responsible adult insist that they never did anything wrong is deeply upsetting. Even more so, the denial of your trauma can leave you feeling even more distressed.

You may even find yourself doubting yourself or your right to your feelings. Being surrounded by people who tell you your experiences and feelings are not real or right can be another form of abuse. Thus, having a clearer picture of what makes a family or relationship dysfunctional can help you recognize potential manipulation. Moreover, recognizing the signs of harmful dysfunction can support healing from developmental trauma through deeper self-awareness.

As noted in “Is My Family Dysfunctional?” from Mental Health America (MHA), listed below are some signs of unhealthy family dysfunction:

  • Perfectionism
    • Unrealistic expectations make you feel like you will never be good enough
  • Unpredictable behavior
    • Impedes the ability to form trusting relationships
    • Unable to honestly express thoughts and feelings out of fear
  • Conditional love
    • Weaponized for manipulation and control
      • Affection is only given when they want something
      • Love is withheld when their expectations are not met
  • Poor intimacy
    • Lack of emotional depth in relationships
    • No emotional support
  • Impaired communication
    • No space to voice thoughts and feelings
    • Attempts at communication are rife with tension and conflict
    • Difficult conversations or issues are avoided
  • Lack of boundaries
    • Individual identity and autonomy are not respected
      • Intimidation is used to discourage independence or sharing thoughts and feelings
      • Role reversal
        • Forced or expected to parent parents and or siblings

Healing from developmental trauma can begin when you dismantle the misconceptions about what is and is not abuse. The traumas of dysfunctional families can be difficult to recognize when it is all you have ever known. Many forms of abuse have obvious acts and overt acts of abuse, like verbal aggression and physical assaults respectively. Yet, subtle acts of abuse like dismissiveness and patronizing language can be harder to recognize and are easier to manipulate into self-doubt.

Therefore, looking at examples of harmful dysfunctional behavior in your family can help you find your path to healing from developmental trauma. Moreover, seeing how the dysfunctions in your family have harmed you highlights the need for healing from developmental trauma. In particular, your ability to recognize more subtle acts of abuse can help you see how developmental trauma can impede your well-being. When abusive and neglectful behaviors continue to impact your life like your self-esteem and self-worth, healing from developmental trauma becomes especially vital to your long-term well-being.

Recognizing the Need for Healing From Developmental Trauma

Knowing that ACEs have a significant impact on the well-being of children is not surprising. The consequences of development trauma can have a wide range of effects on a child’s life. Whether it is difficulties with school performance, substance misuse, or legal issues among many others, ACEs can impede children’s long-term well-being and the quality of their lives. However, the consequences of ACEs not only impact children living through those traumatic experiences but can continue to impact children into adulthood.

When developmental trauma is left unaddressed, it can have a ripple effect on every area of your life. Developmental trauma can negatively impact your mental health and your physical health. The physical and mental challenges of trauma can leave a path of destruction in the wake of your life that can be difficult to come to terms with. Thus, healing from developmental trauma can give you the tools you need to start building a life that is not ruled by your childhood trauma.

According to an article from Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, childhood traumas  – particularly interpersonal, intentional, and chronic ones – increase the risk for mental health disorders like:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Antisocial behaviors
  • Substance use disorder (SUD)

Looking at the disorders that can arise from developmental trauma highlights the way trauma increases psychological distress. Increased distress from mental health disorders can impede your ability to function in your daily life and your ability to successfully achieve life goals. Other impacts of developmental trauma can include:

  • Poor productivity at work and or school
  • Difficulty finding employment
  • Less likely to pursue higher education
  • Financial issues
  • Difficulties building and maintaining supportive relationships

When you lack the tools and skills to cope with trauma in healthy ways, healing from developmental trauma becomes difficult. Moreover, many mental health disorders co-occur with each other to create another level of challenge to your well-being. The interconnected relationship between trauma and your well-being can be seen further in its physical ramifications. As noted in the Sociological Quarterly, exposure to early-life adversities can have a significant impact on the long-term trajectory of your health. disparities in health and disease often stem from the environment you grew up in.

Childhood is an important period of development and the family environment is meant to be a place of health, safety, and security. Through a healthy family environment, children gain the tools they need for future learning, behavior, and health. In addition, healthy childhood development gives children the skills they need to be well-functioning adults. Therefore, ACEs expose children to an environment in which those foundational needs and skills are impaired or absent.

Listed below are some of the additional ways that developmental trauma can impede your health:

  • Chronic conditions
    • Diabetes
    • Pain
  • Poor health
  • Increased risk for heart attacks
  • Other functional limitations
    • Mobility restrictions
  • Increased premature mortality

Moreover, the physical consequences of trauma often co-occur with mental health disorders and SUD. The distress of trauma can lead to disorders like depression and PTSD, which in turn leads to unhealthy coping strategies like binge eating and over-consumption of alcohol. Then those unhealthy drinking and eating habits lead to health issues, which leads to more psychological distress and so on. In summary, your mental, emotional, physical, social, and environment share an interdependent relationship with your overall well-being. To heal from developmental trauma, all of these factors must be addressed in tandem.

Finding Healing From Developmental Trauma at the Guest House

With more awareness of the impact trauma has on your life, you can see the echo of it in every facet of your life. Seeing how much trauma has harmed you can be distressing and overwhelming. You may even wonder if healing from developmental trauma is possible for you. The ability to build healthy coping strategies and start healing from developmental trauma is achievable.

Healing from developmental trauma can be what you need to finally move forward with your life. Yet, you may question what healing from developmental trauma really means. What does healing from developmental trauma look like? At The Guest House, we believe a holistic approach to care can support healing from developmental trauma.

The roots of self-defeating behaviors and or mental health disorders are entwined with ACEs. In order to engage in healing from developmental trauma, treatment must address how all your difficulties relate to each other. Holistic care can support healing as it focuses on addressing your needs for healing in mind, body, and spirit. We are committed to providing holistic care that addresses your specific needs for healing.

Through a wide range of therapeutic modalities, you can work in collaboration with your clinician to build an individualized treatment plan. True healing happens when you have access to support that meets you where you are on your recovery journey. With support, you can build healthy coping skills and discover self-love and self-acceptance. You deserve the opportunity to live a fulfilling life and you can build a path toward that by healing from developmental trauma.

Unaddressed developmental trauma can impede your physical and psychological well-being, form healthy relationships, and achieve life goals. In other words, developmental trauma can negatively impact your ability to lead a fulfilling life. Even when your parents deny the harm they caused, you can still find healing from developmental trauma with holistic care. Through a holistic approach to recovery, you can learn to build healthy coping tools to dismantle self-defeating behaviors and address mental health disorders. At The Guest House, we are committed to providing holistic care to support long-term healing in mind, body, and spirit. Call us at (855) 483-7800 to learn how whole-person healing can help you lead a fulfilling life.