The Many Nuances Of Childhood Trauma

Individual Counseling Insights From Westlake Village-Based Patricia McTague-Loft 

Having you ever been cruising along the freeway listening to your favorite radio station and seen someone get cut off by some rude or oblivious driver? Of course, we all have. But the follow-up question is the interesting one: have you then seen the offended driver throw an adult tantrum after being cut off? It’s not as common as simply being cut off, but it happens and you may very well have been a witness to what’s become known as road rage.

A solo driver

What gives? Why does a presumably mature adult fly off the handle like that? As with so many emotional responses, there’s a lot more going on here than meets the eye. Writing for Psychology Today, Kaytee Gillis says, “Those who experienced trauma often have triggers that follow certain themes that mimic the behavior they experienced in childhood. When these experiences are repeated, they become emotionally activated.”

In other words, a childhood trauma may trigger a person to over-react to a relatively and seemingly harmless offense. Gillis lists several common behaviors that prompt a response that may be rooted in a childhood trauma.

Being cut off in traffic. If a person was perpetually ignored by their parents or caregivers, they may have “internalized the behavior,” Gillis writes, “bringing up feelings of not being seen or heard in childhood, being pushed aside, or being walked over.”

Being interrupted. We probably all know someone who we would characterize as a good listener — and we probably love how they pay attention to what we’re saying. It just makes us feel good to think that what we’re saying is valued. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. When someone interrupts or talks over you, it makes you feel disrespected. If someone does that, it’s perfectly acceptable to calmly point out that you’d like to finish the point you’re making. However, if you feel your blood boiling when someone interrupts you — uh oh, it may indicate that you believe people seldom listened to you as a child.

Being put on the spot. This phrase has a lot of nuance and implied meaning. If you suddenly feel someone has put you on the spot, it may indicate a subtle feeling that you’ve done something wrong, you’re guilty, you’re in trouble — you’re… well, exactly what may be hard to identify. If this hits home, think back. Did your parents have an authoritarian style of discipline? Gillis say, “Being put on the spot activates that part of the brain that remembers feeling ‘stuck,’ worried that whatever we say will get us in more trouble.”

People who constantly talk about their diet. New and rapidly evolving research on adolescents and their use of social media is revealing that young people especially want to portray themselves as physically flawless. When they confront reality, the mental health issues that follow are serious. Unfortunately, social media is only highlighting and exacerbating a problem that has always existed. Some parents have always focused on demanding an unachievable level of physical prowess. In a convoluted fashion, someone who has experienced this trauma in childhood may overreact to people who talk about their latest diet. These people, Gillis writes, “struggle with self-esteem and body image, and may even use food to cope with negative feelings. Being around someone constantly talking about their body, what they dislike about it, and whatever new diet they are on can be draining. And for many, it brings up uncomfortable feelings about our own bodies.”

Childhood trauma is a complicated issue that often requires therapy to address. For insights on other types of behavior that me be rooted in childhood trauma, read Gillis’ full article here.