Everyone has some form of trauma. Even people who haven’t been through life-threatening or traumatic events.
The media has taught us that trauma comes from one (or multiple) intense acute events, but that’s not true. You can have trauma even if you’ve never been abused, addicted, or experienced another such tragedy.
We need to give more credit to developmental trauma, sometimes called relational trauma.
What Is Trauma?
Many people think of trauma as singular events that shouldn’t have happened but did.
Yet, the definition of trauma also covers things that should have happened but didn’t. That could be anything from not being picked up from school on time to not having a good relationship with your caregiver.
Trauma can happen across the lifespan, but in a family setting, most of it is concentrated in childhood, during the developmental years.
What Is Developmental Trauma?
Generally, developmental trauma refers to the genetic alteration of DNA, neglect or adverse experiences that happened in childhood. Childhood refers to anywhere from in-utero, through the teen years,
Dr. Catherine Frogley defines developmental trauma as “a way of conceptualizing and describing the distress experienced by individuals exposed to early and chronic trauma.”
Trauma Can Start in Our DNA
Epigenetics is the study of how different genes are expressed through the genetic code. Epigenetics looks at genetic differences between those with ancestral trauma and those without.
People whose ancestors have gone through traumatic events, such as slavery or the holocaust, are born more sensitive to stress than other people.
Specifically, this process happens through DNA methylation, which affects a man’s sperm. The DNA in that sperm is differently expressed if the father has experienced trauma. From there, that methylation is passed on from that father to his children, and so on.
The science is too new to understand how long this chain of DNA alteration goes on.
Trauma in the Womb
Regardless of your DNA, you can experience trauma as a fetus. If you’re in the uterus while your mother endures a traumatic event, her heightened stress levels affect how you develop.
Even from a non-epigenetics perspective, a mother who has experienced trauma in her lifetime can pass on those influences in the womb.
A baby whose mother experiences trauma during pregnancy or has a history of severe trauma can be born with trauma. They are “hardwired to be over-sensitive to life’s stresses (CNS 2018)”.
ACE: Adverse Childhood Experiences
Developmental psychologists have determined nine events that have a negative developmental effect on children. These are called “ACES.” Multiple ACES have a compounding effect. Aces can affect your nervous system and are associated with negative health outcomes.
There are three subcategories of ACES at the time of this writing. The first is abuse, which can be physical, emotional (more on this later), or sexual. The second ACE category is Neglect, as in physical or emotional.
The third category includes lived experiences that the general public may not consider “traumatic.” These are things like
- Mental illness n the household
- A parent with substance abuse issues
- Witnessing an abusive relationship
- Incarcerated parent
Think about your friends and family. You can probably identify at least one person who experienced one of these adverse childhood experiences.
What Is Relational Trauma?
Relational trauma is another way of saying “abuse from a caregiver.” Melissa Porrey describes it as trauma that happens within a close relationship”.
It can come from anyone who played a significant stakeholder role in your life., such as a parent, grandparent, or childcare provider. There aren’t any concrete boundaries between the two types discussed here.
There are many more types of emotional trauma than most people can name. These include enmeshment, emotional abandonment, and parentification.
These phenomena have always existed, but the general public doesn’t know the terms or understand these types of trauma.
What Is Enmeshment?
There are two types of enmeshment between a child and a caregiver. These are parent/child emotional enmeshment and the overinvolvement of a parent in their child’s life.
Emotional enmeshment is when a parent expects (consciously or subconsciously) their child to cater to their emotional needs. This may include talking to their children about marital issues, venting to them about financial problems, or otherwise involving their children in complex emotional topics best handled by adults.
Enmeshment of a parent into a child’s life is like helicopter parenting but taken to the extreme. Instead of the parent relying on the child for emotional support, the parent is inappropriately involved in the child’s life.
Many children have trouble establishing boundaries and a strong sense of self in this case.
Children of addicts and parents with mental illnesses often have to “grow up too fast.” They find themselves having to take care of the family and household tasks because their parents are unable to or are too intoxicated.
This phenomenon of the child acting like the parent is appropriately called “parentification.”
Parentification is related to enmeshment but involves more concrete tasks and caretaking activities than enmeshment does. It is possible to be enmeshed and parentified at the same time.
Healing from Relational and Developmental Trauma
99% of parents do what they think is best for their children, even if it didn’t turn out to be the right thing. There’s no such thing as the perfect parent. Even children of well-meaning parents can have developmental or relational abuse.
If you believe that you’ve inadvertently contributed to family developmental trauma or that you’ve experienced relational trauma yourself, family therapy is the best step forward.
Getting professional advice about trauma and healing can help you ensure you don’t repeat these patterns in your future relationships (legacy trauma).
Your therapist can help you heal from relational wounding and learn to set boundaries to prevent issues in the future. Contact us to get started.