13 Signs of Repressed Childhood Trauma in Adults
Childhood trauma is an event or series of events that is emotionally painful and distressing for a child and can have lasting negative effects on their health and well-being. The event or events are beyond a child’s coping capacity and can be caused by a variety of factors, including physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, and witnessing violence.
In some cases, childhood trauma can be so overwhelming that the mind represses the memories of the trauma. This is a coping mechanism that helps the child to protect themselves from the pain of the trauma. However, repressed childhood trauma can have a significant impact on the adult’s life, even if they are not consciously aware of the trauma. Some of these impacts include difficulties trusting others, regulating emotions, forming healthy relationships, and an increased risk of developing mental health problems.
If you think you may have repressed childhood trauma, it is important to seek professional help. A counsellor can help you to safely and effectively process the memories of the trauma and begin to heal.
Causes of Childhood Trauma in Adults
Childhood trauma can take many forms. Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood (0 – 17 years old) and are used as a measure of cumulative exposure to childhood trauma.
Research found that adults who had experienced four or more ACEs were twice as likely to die prematurely than those who had experienced no ACEs. They were also more likely to suffer from chronic health problems such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes, mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and PTSD, and addiction.
The common types of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are:
- Physical abuse: Any act that intentionally causes physical pain or injury to a child, such as hitting, kicking, or burning.
- Emotional abuse: Any act that intentionally causes emotional pain or distress to a child, such as name-calling, shaming, or threatening.
- Sexual abuse: Any sexual contact or behavior with a child that is not appropriate for their age or development, such as fondling, penetration, or exposure to pornography.
- Neglect: The failure to provide a child with basic physical needs such as food, clothing, shelter, and medical care.
- Emotional neglect: The failure to provide a child with emotional support and love.
- Household substance abuse: The presence of alcohol or drug abuse in the home.
- Household mental illness: The presence of mental illness in a parent or caregiver.
- Parental abandonment through separation or divorce: One or both parents withdraw from a child’s life after a separation or divorce
- Incarceration of a household member: When a person who is a part of a household is put in jail or prison
- Witnessing domestic violence: When one sees or hears their household member being abused.
Signs of Repressed Childhood Trauma in adults
How do you know if you have repressed childhood trauma? Here are 13 signs of repressed childhood trauma to look out for:
Emotional and Psychological Signs
Fear of abandonment, low self-esteem and repressed memories are some of the tell-tale emotional and psychological signs that one may have repressed childhood trauma.
1. Poor Emotional Control
People with repressed childhood trauma may have difficulty regulating their emotions. They may have learnt that their emotions are not safe to express, or may not have developed appropriate ways to express and process their emotions appropriately. This leads to intense mood swings, bottling of emotions or expression of emotions in unhealthy ways such as anger outbursts, aggression or self-harm.
2. Insecure Attachment Styles
Attachment styles are ways of relating to others that are developed in early childhood and are influenced by the way our primary caregivers respond to our needs for love, support and care. The four main attachment styles are secure attachment, anxious attachment, avoidant attachment and disorganised attachment.
People with a responsive primary caregiver in early childhood are likely to develop a secure attachment style, growing up being able to trust others and believing that they are worthy of love and support.
However, people who have experienced adverse childhood experiences may develop insecure attachment styles, growing up to believe that we cannot depend on others. In adult relationships, people with anxious attachment styles may be overly clingy or demanding, while people with avoidant attachment styles may be fearful of getting close to others. People with disorganised attachment styles may exhibit inconsistent behaviours or have difficulty trusting others.
3. Difficulty Building Healthy Relationships
Building healthy relationships can be particularly difficult for people with repressed childhood trauma. This may be due to trust issues that arose from their adverse childhood experiences, which led to them believing that they cannot depend on others.
This causes a variety of potential challenges such as being fearful of being vulnerable, difficulties with intimacy, or patterns of self-sabotage.
4. Fear of Abandonment
People with repressed childhood trauma may develop a fear of abandonment due to past experiences of abandonment or neglect. They may learn that they are not worthy of love and care, or that relationships are dangerous and that people cannot be trusted. The fear of abandonment may lead to unhealthy behaviours such as clinging to their partners, possessiveness, or excessive jealousy.
5. Low Self-esteem
Low self-esteem is another common sign among people with repressed childhood trauma. They may develop negative beliefs about themselves due to negative childhood experiences such as emotional abuse and neglect and hence feel unworthy of love or belonging, or shame and guilt towards themselves for what happened to them.
Low self-esteem can impact various aspects of life, including feeling unworthy of love and acceptance and difficulties maintaining healthy relationships, not believing in their own abilities in school or work, and a lower overall sense of well-being.
6. Repressed Memories
Repressed memories are memories that have been pushed out of conscious awareness. People with repressed childhood trauma may have memories of the trauma that are fragmented or incomplete, or may have no memories of the trauma at all. The act of repressing memories can be seen as a form of defence mechanism to help an individual cope with the overwhelming distress of a traumatic experience.
Repression can be helpful in the short-term, but can also lead to problems in the long-term. Repressed memories may be triggered by certain events or situations, which can lead to a recurrence of the distress. This can be very disruptive and make it difficult to cope with everyday life. When a person represses a traumatic experience, it also prevents processing and healing from the trauma.
Confabulation is the act of filling in gaps in memory with false information. People with repressed childhood trauma may confabulate about past events in their childhood in order to fill in the gaps in their memory, or unconsciously to protect themselves from the pain of remembering. While they do not have any intentions to deceit and do not realise that the memory is fabricated, this can cause significant implications for the individual.
Physical and Somatic Signs
In addition to emotional and psychological signs, there are also some physical and somatic signs to look out for:
8. Hypervigilance and Hyperarousal
People with repressed childhood trauma may experience hypervigilance or hyperarousal. Hypervigilance is an exaggerated state of alertness and sensitivity to sensory stimuli, while hyperarousal refers to increased psychological and physiological tension.
After a person experiences a traumatic event, their brain’s alarm system may become constantly activated, leading to a state of hypervigilance, in which the person is constantly scanning their environment for danger. In turn, the body’s stress response also becomes activated to prepare for fight or flight, resulting in the person constantly feeling anxious, tense, or on edge.
This may lead to increased sensitivity to external stimuli such as sounds, lights, and touch, and physical symptoms such as difficulty sleeping, feelings of fatigue or restlessness.
9. Dissociative Episodes
Dissociative episodes are a disruption in the normal integration of consciousness, memory, identity, perception, or bodily feeling. It is a mental state in which a person feels detached from themselves or their surroundings. Dissociation can happen in a variety of ways, such as depersonalization, which is a feeling of detachment from one’s own body or mind or dissociative amnesia, which is the loss of memory for important personal information, such as one’s name, identity, or personal history.
Dissociative episodes can be very disruptive and can have a significant impact on an individual’s sense of self and reality. Those with repressed childhood trauma may experience dissociative episodes as a way of coping with the traumatic event, and may be triggered by certain situations or places that are associated with the trauma or stress, or when they experience certain emotions such as fear, anxiety or anger.
Last but not least, those with repressed childhood trauma may also exhibit some of the following behavioural signs:
10. People-pleasing Behaviour
Because of physical or emotional abuse or neglect, those with repressed childhood trauma may learn that it is safer to go along with what others want or may try to please others in order to feel loved and accepted. As a result, these people tend to engage in people-pleasing behaviour.
People with people-pleasing behaviour have difficulties setting boundaries as they are afraid of saying no or disappointing others. This leads to burnout as they are constantly neglecting their own needs, and perpetuation of unhealthy relationship dynamics in which they are constantly giving in to their partners. They may also feel responsible for the reactions and emotions of those around them.
11. Self-destructive Behaviour
Engaging in self-destructive behaviours such as excessive drinking, smoking, substance abuse, self-harm and suicidal thoughts, is common for those with repressed childhood trauma.
Self-destructive behaviour can be a way of trying to numb the pain or to punish oneself. People who have experienced sexual violence may also engage in unhealthy sexual behaviors as a form of reenactment.
Such behaviour can cause physical harm, such as injury, infection, or even death. It can also make it difficult for people to maintain relationships with others, or perpetuate a sense of worthlessness.
12. Avoidant Behaviour
People with repressed childhood trauma may exhibit avoidant behaviour such as avoiding certain people, places, situations or things that trigger traumatic memories. This serves as a defence mechanism to protect against triggering memories or emotions.
In the long-term, avoidant behaviour can prevent people from living their lives to the fullest and can feel lonely and isolating.
13. Child-like Behaviour
Childhood trauma can cause people to regress to childlike behaviours as a way of coping with the pain and fear of the trauma. When a child experiences trauma, they may feel overwhelmed and helpless. Re-enacting childlike behaviours can be a way of recreating a sense of safety and security that the child felt in childhood.
Child-like behaviour can include impulsivity, dependency, difficulties taking responsibility for their actions, or specific behaviours such as throwing tantrums and speaking in a child-like voice.
How to Deal With Repressed Childhood Trauma
Repressed childhood trauma can have a significant impact on your life, even if you are not consciously aware of the trauma. If you think you may have repressed childhood trauma, here are some ways in which you can work through repressed childhood trauma and begin the journey towards healing.
Seek Professional Help
It is important to seek professional guidance in the process of trauma recovery and seek out a qualified counsellor specialising in trauma therapy. Retraumatization, the process of re-experiencing the trauma either physically or emotionally, can occur if the past trauma is not processed safely, making it harder to heal from the original trauma. A qualified counsellor specialising in trauma therapy can help you to process your emotions about the trauma and develop healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with the symptoms of trauma.
Some of the common therapeutic modalities for addressing repressed childhood trauma are Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR).
Build Supportive Relationships
It is also important to build supportive relationships and nurture connections with trustworthy and understanding individuals. Close, supportive relationships provide for a positive corrective experience against previous trauma experiences of physical or emotional abuse or neglect, and can be very helpful in working through trust issues, and the development of healthy communication and relationship skills.
In addition, a support network can also be helpful for healing, helping you feel less alone and to process your emotions in a safe and supportive environment. This can come from joining support groups for validation and shared experiences, or seeking support from friends, family, therapists, or other professionals.
Heal Your Inner Child
The inner child refers to the part of our personality that is associated with the memories, emotions, and beliefs that we formed as children. It is often the part of us that is most affected by trauma. When we experience trauma, our inner child feels scared, alone, and hurt. It may also feel abandoned, rejected, or unloved.
When we heal our inner child, we can begin to process the trauma that we experienced and to let go of the pain and fear that we are holding onto. We can also learn to be more compassionate towards ourselves and to build healthy relationships.
We can begin the healing process by working on reparenting the inner child and doing inner child work. Some helpful inner child healing practices that you can work on your own or with a counsellor, are visualisation, dialoguing, or creative expression.
FAQs about Repressed Childhood Trauma in Adults
Can childhood trauma be completely forgotten or repressed?
Yes, it’s possible for individuals to repress or have gaps in their memories of childhood trauma as a defence mechanism. However, the impact of the trauma can still manifest in various ways in their adult lives.
Can repressed childhood trauma be healed?
Yes, with the right support and therapeutic interventions, healing from repressed childhood trauma is possible. Trauma-focused therapies, such as EMDR or cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), can help individuals process and integrate the traumatic experiences, promoting healing and growth.
Can self-help strategies alone be enough to heal from repressed childhood trauma?
While self-help strategies can be beneficial, healing from repressed childhood trauma often requires professional help. Therapists with expertise in trauma can provide specialised guidance and support tailored to your specific needs.
How long does it take to heal from repressed childhood trauma?
The healing process varies for each individual and depends on various factors, including the severity of the trauma and the support received. Healing is a journey, and it can take time. It’s essential to be patient, practice self-care, and work with a qualified professional to progress in the healing process.