Developmental trauma is more common than many of us realize. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 78 percent of children reported more than one traumatic experience before the age of 5. Twenty percent of children up to the age of 6 were receiving treatment for traumatic experiences, including sexual abuse, neglect, exposure to domestic violence, and traumatic loss or bereavement.
1. Loss of childhood: “I never really had a childhood” or “I can’t remember much from growing up.”
People who experience a very distressing childhood often can’t remember large swathes of their early life. They may remember particularly vivid moments, sometimes called “flashbulb memories,” which don’t have any context to them. They often don’t have a clear story of themselves as a child, up through adolescence, early adulthood, and sometimes even later in life. This autobiographical sense is called a “coherent narrative” in attachment theory, and can be absent, underdeveloped, false, or oversimplified. Many people have told me that they feel like their childhood has been stolen, and without such a foundation, adult identity is compromised.
2. Missing parts of oneself: “I’ve always felt like something was missing, but I don’t know what it is.”
With chronic developmental distress, children often disconnect important parts of themselves in order to survive, a form of dissociation. They may come to rely on one major persona in order to have stability and make it appear as if everything were OK — such as being an exemplary student — while having little or no real personal life. Later in life, they may feel like parts of themselves are missing. Through personal growth and therapy, they may rediscover and even create anew these missing parts. Sometimes they are there, stowed away for better times if you will, but younger-feeling than their everyday persona. It’s common for these missing parts to be associated with particular emotional states and memories, and reuniting leads to a fuller sense of identity.
3. Attraction to destructive relationships: “I’m the kind of person that always dates people who are bad for me.”
It is not uncommon for people traumatized by key caregivers to end up with friendships, romantic relationships, and even work settings which are not good for them. They find people who fit their traumatic identity, even when they are trying to make different and better choices, leading to re-traumatization through repetition of the past.
They may end up being around emotionally unavailable people, abusive or narcissistic people, or end up trying to rescue and fix people they date. Consciously, they want to find someone who can provide what they intellectually know they need and want, yet unconscious influences lead them down unwanted, familiar paths. Frequently, there is a powerful “chemistry” with new relationships, which makes it seem like the relationship will be different, only to learn with disappointment that it is all too familiar. When friends try to warn them, it’s not unusual for them to pick the new romance over a trusted friend. Repeatedly getting into destructive relationships can be disorienting and confusing, leading one to question one’s self-understanding and locking one into the old identity, while preventing new identities from taking root.