There exists a clear link between the experience of childhood trauma and the development of mental illness in later life; in other words, the greater the experience of trauma during childhood, the more likely one will suffer from psychological difficulties in the future.
However, if we ask: ‘Is mental illness caused by trauma during childhood?‘ this is too complex a question to receive a simple answer. Whether or not it does so will depend upon numerous factors, the main ones of which are as follows :
- the type of trauma (e.g. physical, sexual, and emotional abuse)
- the severity of the traumatic experience
- whether the traumatic experience was a single event or was frequent / chronically ongoing (in general, chronically ongoing trauma is likely to damage psychologically the child more than ‘single event’ trauma)
- the age / developmental stage of the child at the time of the traumatic event/s (in general, the younger the child at the time the trauma takes place, the more severe the adverse effects of the trauma on the child’s mental health are likely to be)
- whether or not the harm inflicted upon the child was deliberate the relationship to the child of the perpetrator of the harmful event/s (if the perpetrator is related to the child – e.g. one of the child’s parents – the more severe the psychological harm inflicted upon the child is likely to be),
- the level of the child’s resilience
- the level of psychological support the child receives to help him/her cope with / process the traumatic event/s
- biological / genetic factors
- societal / cultural factors
- the child’s perception and interpretation of the potentially traumatic events
In conclusion, then, we can say that the degree to which an individual is adversely affected by traumatic childhood experiences will depend upon numerous, complex and interacting factors.
Factors That Help Make Children Resilient To The Effects Of Trauma :
Children react in different ways to traumatic experiences. Of course, this is partly due to genetic differences (some children are more genetically vulnerable to the effects of trauma than others).
However, the psychologist Perry, an expert in the area of childhood trauma, has identified six key strengths a child needs to possess to maximize his/her chances of coping with traumatic experiences successfully. The six strengths that Barry describes are as follows:
The role of the primary caretaker is, of course, vital in helping the child to develop each of these strengths. This is why a dysfunctional relationship with the primary caregiver can be so profoundly disruptive to a child’s psychological development.
Let’s look at each of the six key strengths in turn :
1) ATTACHMENT – as I stated above, the quality of the bond a child forms with the primary caregiver (usually the mother) is crucial. A healthy bond will help ensure that the child is able to develop and maintain other supportive relationships in later life.
2) SELF-REGULATION – this refers to the ability to control feelings and emotions such as fear, anger, and anxiety. The ability is NOT innate, but, rather, it is learned as the child gets older.
The provision of emotional support from the primary caregiver (e.g. soothing the child when s/he is frightened) for the child, especially in his/her earliest years, is vital if the child is to learn the skill of self-regulation successfully.
NB: Children who suffer very severe trauma sometimes go on to develop a condition known as borderline personality disorder (BPD), or other psychological disorders, in adulthood. Early therapeutic intervention for those at risk is therefore of the utmost importance. However, always consult a relevant, experienced, and well-qualified professional when making decisions about therapy.
One of the hallmarks of BPD is an inability to control strong emotions. CLICK HERE to read my article on this.
3) AFFILIATION – this refers to the child being able, successfully, to integrate within groups. This is normally first learned within the family and, later, if all goes well, the child is able to comfortably fit in with other groups.
4) ATTUNEMENT – this refers to the skill of being sensitive to the needs and feelings of others. However, if the child is not properly cared for in early life, this ability may well be severely impaired.
Being attuned to the needs and feelings of others helps the child to affiliate (as described above in 3).
5) TOLERANCE – this refers to the child’s willingness to accept others who differ from him/herself. In a functional and healthy family, this can be learned by modeling behaviour on that of the parents/primary caregiver.
6) RESPECT – refers to valuing, and seeing the worth in, self and others. It has its foundations in the skills already described above.
RELATED ARTICLES :
- Factors That Put The Child’s Mental Health At Risk
- Twelve Examples Of Traumatic Childhood Experiences
- Effects Of Severe And Long Lasting (Chronic) Childhood Trauma
- The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study (perhaps the best-known study into the relationship between ADVERSE CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES (ACEs) and the later development of psychological problems).
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).