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Talking about trauma for services

Pathways through which adult health can be compromised

We have all heard the sayings: "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger" and "time heals all wounds". Although trials and tribulations can build character, they can also compromise biological, neurological and psychological processes (Cozolino, 2002). The impact of traumatic events on infants and young children is often minimized in this way. In fact infancy and childhood is the time of the greatest vulnerability to the effects of trauma and the effects of early and severe trauma are often widespread (Cozolino, 2002; Giarratano, 2004a).

Childhood trauma interrupts the integration of sensory, emotional and cognitive information into a cohesive whole and sets the stage for sensitised reactions to subsequent stress. Children who have experienced abuse or neglect often lack the capacity for emotional self-regulation (Streeck-Fischer & van der Kolk, 2000). Childhood trauma has profound impact on the emotional, behavioural, cognitive, social and physical functioning of children. Among other impacts, a traumatised child may, over time, exhibit motor hyperactivity, anxiety, behavioural impulsivity, sleep problems, and hypertension (Perry et al., 1995).

Similarly, adult survivors of childhood trauma and abuse often experience impacts on pervasive functioning including on adult physical and mental health (Draper et al., 2007).

Although the association between childhood abuse and adult mental and physical health problems is well documented, less is known about the pathways through which health is compromised. Pathways linking childhood trauma and abuse with adult health outcomes include emotional, behavioural, social, cognitive, and biological.


Emotional Pathways

Primary attachment to help modulate stress

Caring and secure environments help to moderate the negative impact that stress places on the developing brain (Gunnar, 1998). Because safety and bonding are crucial factors in brain development, childhood trauma compromises core neural networks (Cozolino, 2002).

Normal play and exploratory activity in children requires a familiar attachment figure who can help modulate the child's physiological arousal by providing a balance between soothing and stimulation (Streeck-Fischer & van der Kolk, 2000). Children feel secure when the caregiver provides consistent, warm and sensitive care (Davila & Levy, 2006). In secure environments, stressed children who seek and receive comfort from their primary caregiver can then return to their exploratory activity away from the primary caregiver. The caregiver's appropriate soothing response not only protects the child from the effects of stressful situations but  also enables the child to develop the biological framework for dealing with future stress (Schore, 1994; cited in Streeck-Fischer & van der Kolk, 2000).

Children who do not have a secure base, learn that they cannot rely on the primary caregiver for comfort. They may become incapable of calming themselves down when threatened. In addition, if children are exposed to unmanageable stress and the caregiver does not help modulate the child's arousal (as in situations of family violence) the child will be unable to organise his/her experiences in a coherent fashion (Streeck-Fischer & van der Kolk, 2000). If the child cannot regulate his/her emotional states, or rely on others to help: he/she will respond with fight or flight reactions.

Cognitive understanding of events also helps modulate emotions and enables the formulation of a flexible response. Both cognition and emotions are important. Children who are denied parental care or comfort for long periods of time, can suffer extreme mental and emotional deficits (Van Der Horst, LeRoy, & Van Der Veer, 2008).

Our first intimate or loving relationship with our primary caregiver informs our expectations and patterns of future behaviour.  Bowlby (1988) identified a strong relationship between the attachment pattern in young children and patterns of intimate relationships in later life. When the first attachment is negative it establishes a model for future relationships and affects a survivor's capacity to establish and sustain significant attachments throughout life. Survivors often experience conflictual relationships and chaotic lifestyles, frequently report difficulties forming adult intimate attachments and display behaviours that threaten and disrupt close relationships (Henderson, 2006).


Attachment theories

Attachment theory, a theory of personality development emanating from John Bowlby's work (1988) helps explain the challenges survivors often experience in relationships. Attachment theory suggests that early childhood relationships are internalised and inform an internal working model of the self, others and any relationships. This internal attachment model influences attachment styles used in adult life. "Abusive acts thereby serve as an etiologic reservoir for the development of later psychological disorder" (Briere, 2002). Bowlby described different patterns of attachment with primary care-givers: secure attachments, ambivalent attachments, avoidant attachments and disorganised attachments.

Secure attachments: 'securely attached' children develop inner working models that see others as positively available and themselves as lovable, valued and socially effective (Bowlby1988). Overall, adults with secure attachments have effective strategies for regulating affect (Alexander & Anderson, 1994).

Ambivalent attachments: 'Ambivalent' children experience parenting that is inconsistent, unreliable and emotionally neglectful. Persistent experiences of both emotional and physical neglect may lead children to suffer psychological distress resulting in feelings such as abandonment and rejection. The ambivalent child clings to the primary caregiver and exaggerates affect in order to take advantage of the intermittent responsiveness of their inconsistent parent. As an adult, the 'ambivalent child' may be described as clinging, jealous, obsessive, dependent, self-sacrificing, and describe love as a series of emotional highs and lows (Alexander & Anderson, 1994). Ambivalent' adults may be especially sensitive to the possibility of abandonment, rejection or isolation (Bowlby1988).

Avoidant attachments: 'Avoidant' children experience parenting that is hostile, rejecting and controlling. They experience little warmth or love and their emotional needs remain largely unmet. Parents of the avoidant child were not necessarily consistently rejecting; however, their coldness and lack of responsiveness invariably emerged when the child needed help. The primary caregiver of the avoidant child may respond positively to the child's autonomous behaviours but misattune to the child's request for nurturance (Alexander & Anderson, 1994). Therefore, the learned response of the avoidant child is to hold back when feeling needy so as not to elicit even more rejection from the parent. This reluctance to express negative affect becomes internalised and may take form of compulsive self-reliance. As an adult the 'avoidant child' may be uncomfortable with intimacy, not confident about others' availability, highly self-reliant, seen as hostile to others, easily frustrated with partners, and overtly denying of problems while exhibiting covert symptoms of anxiety, distress, and dysfunction (Alexander & Anderson, 1994).

Disorganised attachments: The primary caregiver of the disorganised child tends to be frightening and/or frightened in his/her interactions with the child. Consequently, the disorganised child is in the untenable position of having to approach the very caretaker who is the source of the child's anxiety and fearfulness (Alexander & Anderson, 1994). Unable to regulate their affect, these children adopt coping strategies such as dissociation when interacting with the parent. As adults 'disorganised children' they may see themselves as truly bad, responsible for the trauma and inherently flawed. They may experience significant distress, depression, and poor social adjustment (Alexander & Anderson, 1994).

Early patterns of attachment set the stage for how children process information and have powerful effects across the lifespan. Secure infants usually grow up being able to rely on both their emotions and thoughts to help them determine reactions to any given situation. Children in abusive environments may learn to either ignore what they feel (emotion) or what they perceive (cognition) (Streeck-Fischer & van der Kolk, 2000). For example, avoidant children ignore their distress and deal with their needs by relying upon the logic of what they can observe. Being able to inhibit their distress protects them from further harm (Streeck-Fischer & van der Kolk, 2000). Ambivalent children may tend to grow up relying on what they are feeling, without much thought about the consequences of their actions. Confused about what they perceive, they tune into their feelings, at the expense of being able to think about the meaning of their experiences (Streeck-Fischer & van der Kolk, 2000).

Behavioural pathways

Behavioural pathways link childhood trauma and abuse and adult health outcomes through health-related behaviours, such as smoking, substance abuse, overeating, high-risk sexual behaviour, and suicidal behaviour (Draper et al., 2007). Survivors are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviours that are deleterious to health.

These high risk behaviours can be viewed as 'coping strategies', initially adopted in childhood, to manage rejection, betrayal and abuse. The trauma of child abuse can lock survivors into the avoidant coping strategies they used during their childhood (such as detaching, denying, forgetting, dissociating, fantasising and withdrawing). The tendency to dissociate remains with the child as he/she grows into adulthood and impairs the development of other coping mechanisms (Briere, 2002). Some of the impacts of childhood abuse observed in adult survivors can be the result of the coping strategies used by children in abusive environments (Henderson, 2006). The extreme coping strategies required to manage the extremes of traumatic stress can create serious symptoms (adaptations) with possible disruptions in identity, attachments, relationships, meaning and spirituality (Saakvinte, Gamble, Pearlman, & Tabor, 2000).

As explained by the women participants in a study by Van Loon and Kralik (2005a):

We spent our childhood maintaining a shroud of 'silence and secrecy' around our perverse experiences of child abuse. We coped by 'suppressing memories', 'learning to forget', 'disengaging', disassociating', 'isolating ourselves emotionally and relationally', 'trying to please everyone', 'trying to adapt' and accommodate our 'weird' situation', because there was 'no escape anyway'. This allowed us to survive our childhood. But as we became teenagers we came 'unstuck'. We knew we 'didn't fit in'. So we 'numbed our rotten feelings' by using alcohol, drugs and/or gambling.

Cognitive pathways

Cognitive pathways include the beliefs and attitudes one adopts that shape daily life. Some of the long-term impacts of child abuse are grounded in the rejection and betrayal the child experienced, and their impact on cognitive patterns. As children, survivors of child abuse have often been betrayed, manipulated and silenced by the adult/s they should have been able to trust.

Most cognitive theories of development acknowledge that we organise the world according to emotion. We have a natural bias towards the positive, especially when evaluating ourselves (Ayoub et al, 2006). Children who experience severe and/or ongoing maltreatment will tend to develop this negative bias especially towards themselves (Ayoub et al, 2006). Children experiencing childhood trauma and abuse tend to attribute blame to themselves and internalize abusive behaviours (Quas, Goodman, & Jones, 2003). These tendencies become cognitive patterns that can continue long into adulthood, and contribute to challenges in the development of self-esteem and a healthy identity (van Loon & Kralik, 2005b).

Cognitive pathways are clearly intertwined with biological pathways. Children who are abused go immediately from (fearful) stimulus to fight/flight responses without learning from the experience because they can't grasp what is going on. Adult survivors' reactions to hostility or silence are often conditioned by the past  with survivors tending to experience current stressors with an emotional intensity that belongs to past rather than present experiences (Streeck-Fischer & van der Kolk, 2000).


Social pathways

Social pathways link childhood trauma and abuse and its negative health outcomes through difficulties in establishing intimate relationships. Trauma in childhood can lead to chronic, negative expectations and perceptions around safety, trust, esteem, intimacy and control which are readily activated by interpersonal interactions in the present environment (Henderson, 2006).

Children exposed to trauma, and lacking an adult to provide continuity, can have a problem understanding themselves or others (Streeck-Fischer & van der Kolk, 2000). Without a clear appreciation of who they or others are, such children do not know how to enlist other people as allies; people are perceived as sources of terror or gratification, but rarely fellow human beings with their own sets of needs and desires (Streeck-Fischer & van der Kolk, 2000). Unable to regulate their feelings, abused children are prone to scare other children (and in time adults) away and hence lack reliable playmates (Streeck-Fischer & van der Kolk, 2000). Parental child abuse not only traumatises children, but also deprives them of healing interactions (Cozolino, 2002).

Two-thirds of the long-term negative mental health effects of child abuse are related to poor education, work choices and deficiencies in intimate relationships, with poor intimate relationships and career choices being among the most influential. This suggests that the social development pathway is significantly impacted by childhood trauma and abuse causing negative emotional or psychological outcomes in adulthood (Schilling, Aseltine, & Gore, 2007). A study by Schilling, Aseltine & Gore (2007) concluded that developing strong social supports was an important factor in ameliorating the effects of depression in a group of adult adolescents who had experienced severe abuse.

Neural development and social interactions are inextricably intertwined. As Tucker says "for the human brain, the most important information for successful development is conveyed by the social rather than the physical environment" (cited in Streeck-Fischer & van der Kolk, 2000). For example, a study by Valentino, Cicchetti, Toth, & Rogosch (2006) found that mothers in abusive families were less available to play and interact socially with their infants even when they were 12 months of age. As a consequence, infants from abusive families demonstrated more imitative and less independent play than infants from non-abusing families.

Vulnerability to hyperarousal makes it difficult to tolerate uncertainty. Avoiding novelty also leads to avoiding social contact. Hence, abused children miss out on the normal transmission of social skills (Streeck-Fischer & van der Kolk, 2000).


Biological pathways

Seventy percent of our genetic structure is added after birth (Schore, 1994; cited in Cozolino, 2002). Experience shapes the structure in which the brain is being organised (Streeck-Fischer & van der Kolk, 2000, Perry et al., 1995). A child's interaction with the outside environment facilitates connections between brain cells (McLean Hospital, 2000). Because the developing brain organizes and internalizes new information in a use-dependent fashion, the more a child is in a state of hyper-arousal or dissociation, the more likely he/she is to be impacted following trauma.