How Childhood Trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences Affects Our Mental Wellbeing as Adults

How Childhood Trauma and ACEs Affects Our Mental Wellbeing as Adults
“Self-honesty is not about putting yourself down or feeling sorry for yourself. Self-honesty is looking at things as they are and then being compelled to make changes.” Frederick Lenz

Complex PTSD (CPTSD) describes chronic childhood trauma, such as emotional neglect or parentification, that is invisible in nature.

Unfortunately, unlike shock trauma or physical abuse, psychological injuries induced by emotional alienation or estrangement are frequently unseen and unrecognized. This may make young children feel confused, lead them to believe their traumatic experiences are baseless and lead them to blame and shame themselves. They may bury or ignore these traumatic memories as adults by dismissively comparing their abuse to that of others who were more 'obviously' harmed.

A growing body of evidence suggests that these persistent childhood relational and attachment injuries are at the basis of a wide range of mental disorders.

This article will explore the signs and symptoms of complex trauma (CPTSD), how CPTSD develops, and how it affects our mental wellbeing as adults.

CPTSD symptoms can manifest in many different ways. Some of the most common signs of CPTSD are:

  • Intrusion symptoms: flashbacks and nightmares

  • Avoidance symptoms: emotional numbness; dissociation; avoidance of potential triggers

  • Reactivity symptoms: hypervigilance, insomnia, etc.

  • Developing a negative image of oneself, tending to see oneself in a negative light

  • Periods of intense depression, thoughts of suicide, or both

  • Difficulty managing emotional impulses

  • Decreased self-esteem or self-compassion

  • Persistent or recurring feelings of shame or guilt

  • Losing faith in one's belief system or moral code

  • Struggling to trust intimate partners or people in general

  • Chronic physical pain

According to research, CPTSD can create feelings of powerlessness, vulnerability, and hatred against the trauma's source, particularly when an abuser caused the trauma. These emotions could contribute to a desire for vengeance.

CPTSD and Mental Wellbeing

CPTSD shares characteristics with several different mental health disorders, which is why some doctors are hesitant to classify it as a distinct diagnosis. Some mental health practitioners may misdiagnose symptoms of CPTSD as borderline personality disorder (BPD), depression, or dissociative identity disorder (DID).

Although borderline personality disorder and complex trauma have a lot in common, research suggests they are two separate diagnoses. A BPD diagnosis is more likely when a person's prominent symptoms include emotional dysregulation, poor relationships, or an unstable sense of self. Furthermore, BPD contains two diagnostic criteria that are not present in CPTSD. The first is a widespread fear of being abandoned. The second is a propensity for idealizing and depreciating the same individual at the same time.

When the predominant symptoms include a chronically poor mood, irritation, hopelessness, or suicidal thoughts, a diagnosis of depression may appear more reasonable. Flashbacks and hypervigilance aren't usually included in a depression diagnosis.

With CPTSD, dissociative episodes or states are common, especially in children or persons who have been abused as children. Dissociative identity has been proposed as a possible response to severe, long-term trauma, similar to CPTSD.

How CPTSD Develops

Because it is concealed, complex or developmental trauma is detrimental. On the surface, we appear to be normal. We were given all we needed in terms of material goods, such as clothing and food. However, how we feel on the inside differs from how we appear on the outside. It's often difficult to maintain the façade of a "normal happy kid from a normal happy home." Our parents and society tell us we're OK, but we're confused because we didn't feel this way as children.


Each member of a healthy family should have enough freedom to express themselves as individuals. In dysfunctional households, however, the child can become the scapegoat, the family's black sheep.

People usually make a scapegoat out of someone to avoid dealing with their own inner problems. The family will want to keep someone as a scapegoat as long as possible so that they do not have to deal with their issues or vulnerabilities. We may be emotionally blackmailed or influenced when we try to change or leave.

The following may indicate you have been scapegoated:

  • You were criticized for natural abilities or characteristics such as sensitivity and intensity.

  • You were given name tags such as "weird," "trouble."

  • You were treated differently compared to your siblings.

  • Your mistakes or errors were blown out of proportion and were punished more than necessary.

  • You were not paid enough attention when bullied.

  • No one cared enough to know or understand or listen to you.

  • Your family dismissed or downsized your achievements.

Even as adults, we find it difficult to shake the scapegoat role. We may carry this false persona for the rest of our lives.

While we may eventually realize that we were not the source of our family's issues, moving from self-hatred to self-love involves significant emotional healing. We must understand that we were never the source of family discord, nor were we in charge of resolving any issues. To heal, the child within us must progress from denial to anger to liberation and release.


The importance of parental supervision and protection in developing a sense of safety and foundation in our psyche cannot be overstated. Parentification is the reversal of the parent-child relationship. However, some parents are unable to do so due to a lack of emotional resources. The parent-child roles are reversed in this scenario; the child becomes the parent, and the parent becomes the child.

There are two types of parentification in general. When a child becomes the parent's emotional support, this is known as emotional parentification. This might happen if a parent shares the most intimate details of their anxieties and worries with their child — things that the child is much too young to comprehend.

This is known as instrumental parentification when a child participates in physical labor and home upkeep, such as housework, cooking, cleaning, caring for younger siblings, and other "adult" chores.

In terms of childhood development, emotional parentification has the worst outcomes of the two types.

Parentification can occur in various ways, including the parent acting childishly, confiding in the child on sensitive issues, or relating to the child as a peer or close friend. If we were in these situations, we would feel obligated to do our best to earn our parents' love. The implications for our feeling of self-worth and conceptions of love are far-reaching, even if they aren't immediately evident.

Parentification is a form of boundary violation. We were compelled to mature at a faster rate than we should have. We had no one to look up to or to whom we could turn for advice. We had to learn and accept that our wants would not be addressed and that having our own aspirations and desires would not be tolerated. As a result, we learn to suppress our emotions. To avoid failing our parents, we learn to suppress our innermost impulses and ignore our desires.

When we were parentified, we also had to parent our siblings. We may feel as though we fell short or failed because a child can't assume the position of a parent by default ultimately. When we have to leave home (for example, when we go to college and "leave our siblings behind"), we may feel guilty. We feel like parents abandoning their children from a psychological standpoint.

We could never have assisted our parents with their emotional problems or their numerous life dissatisfactions. We think it's our fault and that we're not good enough. Even as adults, we are affected by this. We may overcompensate for an unduly compelled sense of obligation in relationships. We don't learn to say "no" or realize when we've had enough. We are always willing to assist or rescue others in distress, and we may be drawn to partners who take more than they give. We can grow emotionally depleted and exhausted over time.

As we grow older, we continue to suffer. There is typically little emotional support or safety net as the primary caregiver for our parents and siblings. We were mainly expected to maintain our composure and never exhibit signs of discomfort. We may find it difficult to say "no" to individuals as adults. We typically struggle to communicate our anger and have trouble trusting others.

Emotionally Unavailable Parents

Due to mental illness, low psychological capacity, employment, or health responsibilities, some caregivers may be emotionally unavailable to their children. As a result of this lack of attention, the youngsters feel isolated and abandoned.

For children to acquire a sense of self-worth, parents must acknowledge their children's expression. This is accomplished using a technique known as mirroring. Parents must make their children feel wanted and welcomed. Parents can achieve this by praising their children, encouraging them, and positively conversing with them.

Sure, a parent can't always be there for their child, but we should have enough mirroring experiences to lay a foundation as a starting point. We will have enough memories to draw from if we were given enough mirroring as children, and we will no longer require constant reassurance. We will have a strong sense of self-worth and the ability to self-regulate as we grow up. However, if we do not have enough mirroring experience, our internal-mirroring development might be hampered, and a part of our psyche can remain childish and dysregulated.

As adults, we have an active mirror neuron system, which makes us more susceptible to emotional contagion and being influenced by other people's emotions. When we are unable to self-regulate, it is easy for us to be overwhelmed by others.


Babies have a natural symbiotic connection with their mothers at birth, according to the Separation-Individual theory (1975). However, infants must have a sense of self and recognize their mothers as distinct individuals to develop normally. On the other hand, some parents have difficulty letting go of their children and detaching themselves from them, mainly due to their fears or unfulfilling lifestyles. This eventually deprives the child of the opportunity to take risks, explore, learn from mistakes, and grow as a person.

Anxious parents may covertly transmit emotional messages to their children such as "I can't survive without you," "don't go," "don't grow up," "you can't go," "you can't make it without me," "it's a scary world out there," and "it's a dangerous world out there."

The dread of being disposable drives some parents' need to preserve control. They may try to use the child to fill a hole in their lives or relationships that they are unhappy with. When a parent has a child, she may believe she has finally found someone who would love her unconditionally, and she may then manipulate the child to satisfy her desire to be wanted.

When our parents' needs take precedence over our desire to be self-sufficient, we establish an identity customized to their requirements. After all, we didn't want to lose their love. This leads to enmeshment, which is a relationship in which two people get overly connected. Family boundaries are distorted or absent in entanglement. A shift in one person's mood has an immediate impact on the entire family. We struggle to set emotional boundaries as adults because we did not have them as children. We have a chaotic sense of self and struggle to distinguish between our feelings and those close to us. We have a strong desire to serve others, and we sometimes feel compelled to do so. Balanced relationships may be difficult for us to achieve.

Enmeshment is often disguised as love, loyalty, family, or unity, making it even more deceptive. It stems from a place of fear rather than love or family. A loving family pushes children to be self-sufficient, to be a "self" rather than a "us." A child should not believe that he is adored based on a condition. Parents should not think that their children are their sole source of joy, fulfillment, or happiness.

Competition and Oppression

Parenthood elicits a wide range of feelings, including rage, love, despair, pride, and so on. Jealousy is one of the feelings parents can experience toward their children, even though it is not widely spoken in society.

Parents who have had unfulfilling lives are particularly intimidated by seeing what their children have—possibilities they did not have as children. Their childhood wounds are reactivated as they see their children grow, and they go back in time psychologically to when they were children. Parents may begin to see their children as competitors in some cases.

This creates a contradiction. On the one hand, parents want for their children's success. On the other hand, they are scared by the sight of their offspring, who are more attractive and accomplished than they were or are. Given how much time and energy they had invested in the child, they may feel betrayed as the youngster grows more independent. Parents who aren't aware of their bitterness and envy may act out in destructive ways. They may offer their children backhanded or sarcastic compliments, subtle criticism, or even blatant attacks and ridicule.

Parents are usually the first role models for their children. Role models who disparage our achievements or tear us down cause us to acquire poor self-esteem and despise ourselves. We may feel guilty or ashamed of our accomplishments as adults. We may even sabotage ourselves by being ordinary and underachieving on purpose.

How Complex Trauma (CPTSD) Affects Our Mental Wellbeing

We Dissociate and Feel Dead

Trauma accumulates over time and puts our childhoods in danger. However, as a result of our emotional abandonment by our caregivers, we have learned to bury our inner selves. The part of us that is free, spontaneous, and alive is our genuine self.

We had no choice but to dissociate since the recurrent emotional abuse or neglect was so awful. We may become disconnected from our bodies, emotions, and other people due to our numbing. We can function in the outside world, but we don't feel linked to it. We keep our enthusiasm, spontaneity, and ability to be vulnerable hidden. Everything is seen with intellectual curiosity, yet we maintain a safe distance. As a result, we experience a sense of emptiness that causes us to lose our sense of ourselves. We feel guilty for abandoning our truths deep down.

We Feel Defective

Children are prone to blaming themselves for their misfortunes.

They believe they are being bullied because they are not good enough.

They believe they are too needy if they seek attention from their parents but are ignored.

They believe it is their failure if they are loaded with demands they cannot meet—to be a perfect child, take good care of their siblings, and calm their parents' rage.

If we are scapegoated as a child as the "difficult one"—the one who is "too much," "too sensitive," the source of all household woes—we will assume we are to blame and internalize a sense of deficiency. We think we're unpleasant, ugly, foolish, or imperfect as a result. Our toxic shame makes us believe things like, "Nothing I do is good enough," "There is something wrong with me," and "I am awful and toxic."

Toxic shame makes us believe we only deserve a little and must accept less. It prevents us from reaching our full potential because we limit ourselves.

We Become Highly Anxious

If our parents are emotionally unstable, or if we feel compelled to care for them because of their weaknesses, we become the family's "little adult." We are hyper-vigilant, continuously looking for even the tiniest signs of our parents' emotional instability to safeguard ourselves and our siblings. This predisposition to be super sensitive never goes away, and we continue it into adulthood.

Our neurological system is always at a high level of arousal. We may feel as if we can't relax and must always be on the watch for danger. We may feel irritated and jittery and suffer from insomnia, anxiety problems, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors.

Traumatic memories are stored in our bodies rather than our minds. We feel ungrounded and uncentered as a result of childhood trauma. We're like scared children trapped in adult bodies; when unexpected events occur, we're overwhelmed and on the verge of collapsing.

We Have Addictive and Compulsive Personalities

When we encounter a painful or traumatic scenario, our brain is meant to protect us; it will be preserved in a way that is 'frozen in time.' It's possible that we won't remember it. We don't know what sets us off, but we experience unpredictable mood swings, persistent melancholy, depression, and explosive fury due to our suppressed memories.

We strive to either A) Numb away the pain that we try so hard not to feel, or B) Fill the inner hole by addictive activities of any kind, from drinking, spending, eating, and obsessive sex. However, because these external agents' numbing/filling impact never lasts long, and we grab for more as soon as it wears off, this can become a compulsive loop. It's a dead-end escape path that will never get you anywhere.

We Fear Intimacy

Trust, reliance, and acceptance all necessitate a level of vulnerability that our battered skin can't tolerate.

We decide that we can no longer handle any more agony and disappointment after being misled by those who were supposed to love and support us. We believe that if we cease hoping and believing in anything or anyone, we will be spared the inevitable disappointment. The concept that having hope and expectations is dangerous is ingrained in our brain, so we don't attach to anyone or anything to avoid disappointment. The energy spent suppressing painful memories is enormous. We relate to the world through the prism of hatred and distrust if we bury our betrayal trauma without processing it and push people away.

We fear being suffocated, losing control, or losing our sense of individuality if we grew up in a chaotic family or our parents were overprotective or overbearing. We are afraid of being asked for too much, so we keep our distance and withhold.

While withdrawing from closeness does not always imply complete isolation, we may feel compelled to hide aspects of our true selves. We appear to be social on the surface, yet we don't get close to anyone. Or perhaps we settle for feigned intimacy in sex but never commit to getting to know someone in detail. We become cold, cynical, and sarcastic as we bury our passionate, loving selves. When we retreat into our shells when we are vulnerable, we can also not accept assistance and affection from others.

We Sabotage Our Relationships or Remain Loyal Beyond Deservedness

Neuroscientists have discovered that our parents' reactions to our attachment-seeking activities, particularly in the first two years of life, encode our worldview. We will build a sense of safety and trust if we experience continuous attachment interactions as newborns with an attuned, available, and nurturing caregiver. When our parents are emotionally inaccessible to us, on the other hand, we absorb the message that the world is a scary place and that no one will help us when we need it.

As adults, any distance, even a small and insignificant one, can cause us to relive the grief of being abandoned, discarded, or despised. As a result, there is an intense fear of being abandoned. Our anxiety may cause us to engage in coping survival behaviors such as denial, clinging, avoidance, ignoring others, lashing out in relationships, or a history of undermining relationships to escape rejection.