The Trouble with Unrecognized Trauma

child experiencing difficult, traumatic event

Unrecognized or unprocessed trauma from childhood can affect our daily functioning and behavior patterns as adults.

Do you ever have thoughts, feelings or behavior patterns that bother you, but you’ve been unable to figure out why?

It’s a possibility that you have unprocessed childhood trauma that is impacting your adult life.

But what does that even mean?

There are a wide range of traumas that go unidentified and are unacknowledged, which leads them to be unprocessed.

Trauma used to be considered to only impact war veterans with the diagnosis of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but we now know that there is an endless list of traumatic events that can impact individuals.

This is especially true for children.  According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, children in foster care are twice as likely to develop PTSD as veterans.

The root of many physical, mental and emotional conditions can stem from childhood. Some experiences have gained more exposure and are understood generally to be traumatic such as physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence or witnessing gun violence.

However, there are some traumas that go unrecognized and that can affect us in ways we may not realize. Here are some examples:

  • Lack of food, heat, or electricity
  • Witnessing or experiencing a serious car accident
  • Parent’s divorce or an intense custody battle
  • Growing up with a parent/relative with a mental illness or chronic illness
  • Death of a close loved one
  • Growing up in a home that lacked affection
  • Parents/relatives instilling an intense pressure to succeed
  • Incarcerated parent
  • Reversal of roles between a parent and child

As children, you may have explored or expressed these unrecognized traumas through repetitive play because this is how a child attempts to gain understanding and mastery of such events.

Like children, adults can play these traumas out as well. Adults may experience this repetition as dating the same type of toxic or unhealthy person, experiencing sexual fantasies, engaging in events that trigger emotions like anger or anxiousness, a constant lack of enforcing boundaries, and even in the thoughts we have about ourselves and others.

via iStock

Our behaviors, thoughts and feelings may be linked to these unacknowledged traumas and can create emotions such as shame, worthlessness, feelings of depression and anger, in addition to creating patterns in our behaviors that we can’t quite figure out how to explain or change.

For instance, a child who always had to sit out during activities in elementary school due to asthma and was teased for it may find that as an adult, they are repeatedly creating situations where they have to conquer opponents, causing hostile relationships with friends.

Another example may be someone who consistently finds themselves with a partner who engages in infidelity because as a child, they were aware that their father was unfaithful.

These patterns, feelings, thoughts and behaviors may cause irritation but go unchanged because the childhood traumas went unrecognized or unacknowledged.

It is never too late or too early to explore and process any traumas in order to gain insight, and understanding which can lead to the change you have been struggling to figure out how to make.

Uncovering the past can be scary, frustrating and exciting all at once, but by unmasking an unacknowledged trauma, you can create the life you’ve always wanted to live.

If this article resonates with you, seeking a trauma-informed therapist is a great place to start.

Sylvia Johnson, LMSW, is a psychotherapist and CEO of Mitten Center for Psychological Trauma.

Read more:

Addressing Trauma Early Can Score Big Points for Kids and Families

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