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Complex Trauma

Children surrounded by violence at home or in the community learn the world is an untrustworthy and dangerous place and feel powerless to change their own lives. As they grow older, their ways of coping can become counterproductive and interfere with their capacity to live, love and be loved.

Common problem areas include:

Relationships and emotional responses to unpredictable or exploitative relationships: Children can become overly sensitive to adults, watching for how they behave, and masking their own emotions of fear, sadness or anger. They may feel unworthy, be susceptible to stress and have trouble controlling and expressing emotions. They may react violently or inappropriately or “tune out” (emotional numbing), making them vulnerable to threats. 

Dissociation: Children may mentally separate from traumatic experience, perceiving themselves as detached or watching what is happening as if outside their bodies. Once they learn to dissociate as a defense mechanism, they may automatically dissociate when triggered by other stressful situations or trauma reminders. This can have adverse effects on learning, classroom behavior and social interactions.

Behavior: Children may feel powerless or fear an abusive caregiver, overreacting to perceived blame or attacks, or be overcontrolled and unusually compliant. They may struggle with self-regulation (calming themselves down), lack impulse control, engage in high-risk behaviors (self-harm, unsafe sex, excessive risk-taking) or engage in illegal activities (substance use, assault, stealing, running away, prostitution). Learning how to survive, they live moment-to-moment, without hope.

Cognition: Children whose bodies and minds are in chronic stress response mode may show deficits in language development and abstract reasoning skills or show other learning difficulties requiring academic support. They may struggle with sustaining attention or be able to plan ahead and act accordingly.

Physical health and long-term consequences: When children grow up afraid or under constant or extreme stress, their immune and stress response systems may not develop normally. Later, these systems may respond to normal stressful situations as if extremely stressful. They can develop chronic or recurrent physical complaints (headaches, stomachaches) or engage in risky behaviors (smoking, substance use, diet and exercise habits leading to obesity).

A longitudinal Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study (mid-1990s) explored the impact of childhood trauma on adult health. Results indicated a connection between childhood trauma exposure, high-risk behaviors (smoking, unprotected sex), chronic illness (heart disease, cancer) and early death. 

Victims of complex trauma and their families also experience “immeasurable” losses of pain, sorrow and reduced quality of life.

Read more about CFI’s specialized treatments for complex trauma and other trauma-related concerns.



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