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How Does Childhood Abuse Influence Adulthood?

Question:

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p> Can and how does childhood trauma relate or reflect to adulthood. (example) A young girl from the age 3/4 to 13/14 yrs. witnesses mother being severly abused daily. Now she is in her mid 20’s, she finds herself having difficulties with depedency and constantly have flashbacks of the past. if possiple could you give me any knowlege of this situation and advise on how to deal with this matter. I know she is hurting with pain inside. Thank You A concerned friend.

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Answer:

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p> From birth to death (or at least to adulthood), people grow not only physically, but also in terms of mental and emotional complexity. Babies probably do not perceive the distinction between themselves and the other people in the world. It’s all one undifferentiated thing to them; they just need and their needs are either taken care of, or they are uncomfortable. As the infant grows, it learns to distingish between self and other, and this process of making increasingly more fine grained and more sophisticated distinctions amoung things continues for years. See our discussion of Child Development for some introductory detail.

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p> Trauma is a monkey wrench thrown into the works of human development. Instead of smooth and steady growth from day to day, month to month and year to year, tramatic events essentially overload the system, making it all but impossible to move forward. Such events are horrible and stay with people despite how they try to avoid them. Avoidance of trauma memories is part of the problem, however. Necessary though it is to avoid horrible things, often times, the only good way out is through. Still, some things are too horrible to push through and so people get stuck and stop growing. They continue to grow physically, and in many other ways, social and otherwise, but in terms of the things they now avoid, they do not progress and remain at or around the sophistication level they were when they were traumatized. If someone is sexually traumatized, for instance, they may become promiscuous or avoid sexuality altogether, but in any event, their appreciation of how sexuality might be used to bring people together rather than apart will generally remain stunted.

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p> In the case you bring up where someone witnesses violence against her mother during her childhood years, it is not terribly surprising that she would have some relationship issues as an adult, becuase she has learned that relationships can be quite litterally threatening things. Dependency/passivity/victimhood is not the only possible outcome; some kids see that stuff and get angry and act out instead, ending up living more wild lives. In either case, the best way to “grow out” of this stultifying pattern is generally to confront the memories and try to rationally understand and emotionally process what happened in an adult context. This is best done with a trained psychotherapist, as the work is sensitive and private in nature and also more than a little terrifying. There is a balance that needs to be kept between pushing too hard and not pushing hard enough (See my essay “Therapeutic Windows“). You can support your friend by helping her to find a good therapist, perhaps, and by telling and showing her that you love her (e.g., by treating her with loving respect, by listening to her when she needs to talk and vent), but you cannot do the work for her.

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