Welcome to Part Two in the ‘Trouble With Trauma’ series…
In moving forward from the awareness that around the age of four is your first experience of an abandonment, we need to understand that you then spend your time trying to ensure that you don’t have that experience again. You are trying to avoid the rejection. We know that when we are children, in terms of when we have that sense of abandonment, our primary emotional response is shame. Shame is the heaviest emotion that we experience as human beings. We decide we don’t like how that feels, especially as children and we don’t want to feel that again so we seek to avoid being rejected in the future. As such, we start to become anxious because anxiety is fear based.
As such, it is important to note that most children experience anxiety as fear is the most common emotion in our early childhood – so most children in primary school experience anxiety as their primary negative emotion.
I talked about the movie ‘Resilience’ that came out in 2016 and has recently made a resurgence in Australia. This documentary that is actually research-based and highlights the fact that if we have a high number of ‘adverse childhood experiences’ (ACEs), in particular if you have more than four out of ten ACEs in your early childhood, then you are more than twice as likely to develop a chronic disease and your life expectancy can be reduced by up to 20 years.
Now, why is that?
Researchers in the USA actually found that it was because within the people who were getting ill at younger ages, they reported high levels of adverse childhood experiences. In my interpretation of their research, I’m saying high levels of trauma.
I believe that it is due to the trauma in their childhood, the negative environments that they grow up in, it is due to this experience that they spend the rest of their time through their early primary school years trying to control their environment because they’re quite fearful about what might happen and they can become quite anxious. I believe that it is this level of constant fear, that causes their body to vibrate at a very low level – constantly. They live their lives between fear and shame – the vibrational impact of their environment would have an negative impact on their cellular functioning. I believe it is this affect that alters their cells and this is what makes them more susceptible to chronic disease later in their lives.
Anxiety in a child in primary school can be managed reasonably well, depending upon what the family situation is like. At that age, or up until about the age of 12, children look to their family connections to give them that sense of security and support. If they’ve got a good solid family base, even if they’ve experienced an abandonment, they can usually cope better. It is important to note here that every single person on the planet actually has this experience around that point in time (pre-school) from something that happens between them and their primary caregivers. For some people it’s a huge thing, for other people it’s only a little thing, but it’s enough to make that child fearful of a future abandonment.
If the rest of the family situation is reasonably secure, as in Mum and Dad, the household is not volatile and it’s all pretty stable, then that situation works out not too bad. From this space of security, the child can get through life without being terribly anxious during primary school. However, if the home life is really unstable or volatile, then those kids are lining themselves up for some problems. As a society, we really need to understand this as a community based problem.
If we wait to intervene until a child is in their adolescence, we have left it too late! We actually need to intervene in primary school and start addressing these high levels of fear because their anxiety is usually triggered by something in their environment, but often they don’t even know what it is and they are not able to communicate it.
This is really important – for all of you going through a divorce, what is crucial to understand is that if you have children in your household, even though it looks like they’re coping okay, you need to spend time communicating with them that it’s not their fault. That the relationship broke down, that Mummy and Daddy still love them just as much as they did before, but they just don’t want to live in the same house together anymore. It is really important that those kids understand it’s not their fault – I can’t stress how important that is.
Moving on into adolescence, the key learning about our progress through adolescence is in understanding that as an adolescent, your job is to separate yourself from your parents. At this point you think your parents are the most ‘deadbeat’ people on the planet! You really don’t want to be anything like them – they embarrass you. This is perfectly normal. In your adolescence, your job is to differentiate yourself from your parents and actually try and link yourself very strongly to your peers.
So why do adolescents experience depression at such high rates? I’ve done research around this and around 40% of adolescents experience depression at some point. In our society, we often talk about what comes first? Depression or anxiety? There is an argument that says chicken-or-egg – who knows?
I’m actually going to put my hand on my heart and tell you that it’s anxiety first. Our first cognitive emotional experience is shame, but the experience of shame actually leads you to a point where you start to think “I don’t want to experience shame again!” So, we become fearful of experiencing it and become anxious to avoid it.
However, when we hit adolescence we are trying to differentiate ourselves from our parents and connect with our peers. So, if our connection to our parents is secure and we don’t get a very good connection to our peers then it’s usually not too bad, we can manage our adolescence. It won’t be perfect, but it will be okay. Alternatively, if you’ve had a really revolting parental relationship, or your home life is very unstable, then sometimes you can get really good connection to peers. Often this happens because you connect with all the other kids that have got big problems because their home life is rubbish. These kids often end up grouping together and rebonding into a family of other teens just like them. These kids will usually survive adolescence without getting super depressed either – it’s interesting that juvenile delinquents can manage a little better by connecting with each other. They often manage better as a group, not necessarily getting depressed about it as such, until they hit the alcohol and other drugs to ‘numb’ themselves and their feelings of rejection… Then that’s a whole different ball game.