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Did I Experience PTSD During My Childhood?

Carola is a mental health advocate and a freelance writer who focuses on mental health, mental illness, and cognitive conditions..

Carola at 6 years old

Carola at 6 years old

As a mental health writer and advocate, I have observed that we are learning a lot more about how post traumatic disorder (PTSD) affects people in the last few years. Sometimes I wondered, did I experience PTSD myself during my traumatic childhood? If I did, how could past PTSD symptoms affect me as an adult? My journey of discovery was not a search for a diagnosis (which I believe can only be done by a mental health professional) so much as my need to understand myself better.

My Story

After completing the PTSD questionnaire on the video above, I was surprised to find that I said "yes" to most of the questions regarding my emotional states, relationships with others, and family situation. Each "yes" and "maybe" was a sign of this condition.

I endured verbal and physical abuse from my parents and was bullied by my peers at school. While I was growing up, many people in my life told me I was ugly, stupid, stinky and incompetent. At home, my parents hit and "spanked" me in ways that sometimes left me black and blue all over. Does that mean I had some symptoms of PTSD as a child?

The Mighty, a health website community, asked their contributors to share their experiences with this condition. Each person has a different story but I could relate to many of the symptoms they described. Many of my trauma-related behaviors have lessened or diminished with time, while others come out when I am stressed or afraid.

A Definition of PTSD

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, post traumatic stress disorder is a condition that can be caused by all types of abuse, physical violence, natural disasters, neglect, chronic illness, or other traumatic events. The signs must last for at least one month and cause severe disruption in people's lives before a diagnosis of this condition can be determined by a medical professional.

Some people experience symptoms that disappear after a few months while others may develop long term. This condition often co-exists with depression, anxiety, and substance abuse disorders. PTSD affects 3.5 percent of the US population.

This symptoms of this condition include:

  • Recurring symptoms such as flashbacks of the trauma
  • Distressing memories, flashbacks to the injury and nightmares
  • Problems sleeping
  • Intrusive thoughts about the event
  • Upset when reminded of the occurrence, easily startled
  • Avoidance - Avoiding places or people who trigger memories of the event
  • Hypervigilance – tense and on guard
  • Risky sexual behavior
  • Self-harm
  • Substance abuse

Signs of PTSD in Children and Teens

Children may experience the above symptoms. Some who experience trauma will not develop PTSD. Research shows that 30 to 40 percent of children who are physically or sexually abused will develop this disorder. The difficulties these children have communicating their feelings may mean that the signs of trauma will show up in their behavior rather than their conversation.

According to a study in the UK by Kings College London, little is known about the extent of trauma how affects young people. Only one in five of the young people studied received effective treatment for this condition. The study found that one in four young people who experienced childhood trauma met the criteria for PTSD at age 18. Three out of four had other mental health conditions and were at a high risk for self-harm and suicide.

PTSD Symptoms I Experienced

Disassociation/ Daydreaming

One thing I have in common with many trauma survivors is the ability to mentally disconnect into a kind of numbness when I experience a traumatic event. Another way I unplugged was to escape into a dream world. At school, I had a reputation for being absent-minded and not present mentally. The classmates who bullied me interpreted this as stupidity. I still find myself disassociating when going through physical pain or emotionally challenging experience.

Oversharing

Sometimes I felt driven to share the story of the trauma I endured. The urge was so strong that I sometimes overshared to strangers. Unfortunately, some people could not handle hearing about it. They resorted to platitudes, changed the subject, or withdrew from me. When I was on a journey to healing from my past in my twenties, I no longer felt the urge to talk about my past hurts.

Anger

I started to recognize the extent of the harm that had been to me in my late teens and early twenties. Sometimes I could suppress my rage at how I was treated but I could not always keep it down. It was like trying to cap a volcano. Little things could spark an overpowering rage I could not control. My anger lessened through counseling and practicing forgiveness later in life.

Isolation

I was often withdrawn and did not have many relationships with people. Some survivors isolate themselves to the point that they do not express their emotions or feel empathy for others. They have difficulty connecting to other people and developing relationships. I still tend to withdraw from people if they hurt my feelings and avoid them if I can.

Other Symptoms

Here are some other common symptoms that did not apply to me but affect many trauma survivors:

Panic Attacks

Some victims of physical abuse flinch when they are around other people. The presence of other people, their nearness, or certain sounds may trigger the fear they felt when they were traumatized. Physical contact such people attempting to hug them or restrain them can cause paranoia and anxiety attacks.

Self-harm

Some victims deal with their symptoms with destructive behaviors such as hypersexuality and self-injury.

Creating safety nets

Some people use their environment to feel safe. They may pile up books, toys, or other items around their room. This way they will be alerted by intruders who were knocking over or tripping on their stuff.

Hypervigilance

Some constantly check their locks to monitor their homes to make sure all is well. They may check up on loved ones to ensure that loved ones are alive and well.

For Parents: Signs To Look for

Here are some common signs that children may be struggling with the effects of traumatic experiences:

  • Frequent anxiety, nervousness, and depression
  • Disordered eating
  • Playing in a way that recalls or repeats the traumatic event
  • Being emotionally numb
  • Often showing negative emotions such as fear, sadness, and shame more than positive states
  • Negative actions such as crying or impulsiveness
  • Having difficulty concentrating in school, skipping classes
  • Sleep problems such as insomnia or night terrors
  • Unusual behavior such as clinging to their parents
  • Reduced interest in activities they used to find enjoyable
  • Slipping backward in their development milestones such as toilet training in toddlers

Concluding Thoughts

PTSD was not well understood when I was growing up, but with counseling, peer support, and other means, I was able to overcome many of these symptoms in adulthood. Understanding why I behaved in certain ways helped me to know myself better and sent me on my emotional healing journey.

These days, specialized help is available for children who have had adverse reactions to trauma. Some of these treatments are: eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, cognitive behavioral therapy, play therapy, and medication. Mental health professionals recommend that parents and guardians seek help from PTSD specialists as soon as possible.if their children show signs that they may have this condition.

References:

13 Signs You Grew Up With PTSD, The Mighty, Juliette Virzi
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
Study: One in 13 Young People in UK Have PTSD Before 18 Years Old, Kings College London
PTSD in Children and Adolescents, PSYCOM, Kathleen Smith, PhD

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2019 Carola Finch

Comments

Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on March 02, 2019:

Great article, Carola. I enjoyed reading it. You always write well about these topics. There are probably more people suffering with PTSD than the data suggests. Cultural factors and limited resources may prevent many who are impacted from seeking help. However, your article provides good guidance about the subject. Much respect - Tim