What is ‘Complex Trauma’?
Youth grow up in many different kinds of families and neighborhoods. When things go well, they have grown ups in their lives who look out for them, show them love, and help them grow up to be healthy and strong. However, sometimes the grown ups who children and adolescents are supposed to be able to count on to help and protect them say or do really mean or hurtful things, or just aren’t able to take care of them.
Life experiences matter—good, bad, and everything in between. As we grow up, both the things that happen and those that don’t happen affect us. Some youth don’t think what happens really matters. How about you? Some people think children and adolescents are supposed to get over what happens to them even if it’s something really horrible. But for many youth, things keep bothering them long after they happened.
A Traumatic Experience Versus a Lifetime of Traumatic Experiences
There is a profound difference between a traumatic experience, like a car accident or a hurricane, or a complex trauma occurring when lots of dangerous or hurtful things keep happening over and over again, like sexual abuse, bullying, or neglect. We have many different names for these kinds of things: stress, tragedy, adversity, and trauma. None of these words really capture the difference between what it’s like to deal with one or a couple of bad things that happened, versus living with lots of terrible things happening all the time.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
After going through a traumatic event, many youth (and adults) have a hard time forgetting what happened. Sometimes they have nightmares, or can’t stop thinking about it. They can get jumpy or tense, feel afraid that the bad thing will happen again, or lose interest in things they used to like to do. These responses to trauma are normal, and aren’t just “kid” problems: they happen to athletes, soldiers, police officers, firemen, and parents. Sometimes it gets better on its own. When it doesn’t, and people keep getting triggered by things that remind them of what happened, this is called PTSD.
Sometimes, young people grow up with a lot of bad things or hardly any good things, or both. And sometimes the same bad things happen so often, youth might think that this is just how life is. There could be trouble at home, like grown ups fighting all the time or not giving children things they need like enough to eat, warm clothes, hugs, words of encouragement, or praise. Sometimes, things are bad in a way that hurts young people on the inside, where no one can see, like when grown ups, older siblings, or peers are constantly saying terrible things about them, threatening them, or getting mad and blaming them for things that are not their fault. Some youth live in scary neighborhoods where it never feels safe outside their home.
It can be really hard when bad stuff starts to pile up. Many children and adolescents feel like there’s no one around to fix things, and no one in their corner. They can feel afraid, sad, or mad a lot of the time, or blame themselves for what’s going wrong. It can also be hard to trust people when you never know if someone is going to let you down, disappear, or attack you all of a sudden. If you feel like people don’t care about you, you might start thinking you deserve the bad things that happen. Instead of feeling loved and special, you might not feel good about yourself.
You might feel like you’re really different from other people and like you don’t fit in, especially if you see others having good times with their families and having grown ups they can count on. It might feel like you’ll never be good at anything no matter how hard you try, and you want to just give up. It can feel really hopeless. When youth feel like this, it usually doesn’t get better on its own. Sound complicated? You bet. That’s why it’s called Complex Trauma.
Complex Trauma can affect people in lots of different ways. Children and adolescents with Complex Trauma often have negative thoughts, emotions, or beliefs about themselves or the world. They might have uncomfortable feelings in their bodies from living with constant stress. Living a traumatic life can make it hard for young people to have healthy relationships or imagine a good future.
Even when bad stuff happened in early childhood and was supposed to be “over” years ago, the effects of Complex Trauma can last a really long time. This can be confusing and upsetting for teens and even young adults who still feel hopeless, unhappy, stuck, lost, or unsafe even though everything is supposed to be better and different now. This can create a lot of pressure and shame, especially when adults start to get impatient, frustrated, or blame youth for not trying hard enough to change. The important thing to remember here is that this is exactly how Complex Trauma works. The good news is that you don’t have to go through it alone, and you shouldn’t go through this alone- SEEK HELP! It helps!
Part 2 will focus on strategies youth use to cope with stressful experiences and feelings that may cause additional problems.