How adverse childhood experiences impact our adulthood

The things that happen to us in childhood aren’t just buried and forgotten forever. They impact us for decades to come.

E.B. Johnson
Dec 16, 2019 · 14 min read

by: E.B. Johnson

When you experience adverse childhood experiences or hardship, your life and your soul are altered forever. Those who suffer loss, abuse or neglect early-on in life can often suffer from serious psychological and emotional disorders for decades to come, changing who they are and destroying their ability to foster caring and nurturing relationships even decades after the traumatic event.

Damaged at such critical developmental stages, many of us can find that we struggle with our own mental health, addiction issues and even difficulty attaching. Healing the harms and injuries of our childhood is one the hardest things we can do, but it’s necessary for us to create the life we want.If you want to get over the past, you have to start by facing it — bravely and one step at a time.

What is ACE?

If you want to resolve your childhood trauma, you first need to understand it. Trauma can generate some momentous emotions, and unless we learn how to process these emotions, we will continue to repeat the same damaging patters that keep us stuck and hurting. Refusing to face the traumas of our past causes them to fester like a sore; staying in our bodies as unconscious energy that wrecks everything from our employment prospects to our romantic relationships.

Childhood trauma is caused by any situation in which a child perceives that they are in an extremely frightening, dangerous or overwhelming position. This can occur either when they themselves feel threatened, or it can occur when they see someone they love struggling, harmed or otherwise belittled, abused or demeaned.

Traumatic events cause children to feel helpless and scared in a way that is far beyond their mental and emotional processing. These situations can occur in one-off events like natural disasters and injuries — or they could occur from regular instances of physical, sexual and verbal abuse. All these events can bring on symptoms of emotional and psychological trauma, and all of these events can haunt children well into their adult lives.

The types of experiences that upset our childhoods.

There are a number of different childhood experiences that can take a long term toll on our health and sense of self as adults. While physical and sexual abuse most certainly make the list, adult-struggles are not limited to these experiences alone. The mental and physical health of our parents can significantly impact who we are, as can the emotional and physical neglect we experience.

Emotional abuse

We don’t typically think of emotional manipulation as abuse, but it is. When someone intentionally causes an injury to our dignity or emotional integrity, they are abusing you. Emotional abuse most often occurs in the form of threats, shaming, scapegoating and even confinement or driving you to hurt yourself.

Physical abuse

Whether you were abused or you watched someone else receive physical abuse in your household, it has a damaging effect on your psyche for the longterm and as an adult. This occurs when someone (anyone) who has authority over you uses it to injure you physically, or they use their power and threats of violence to abuse someone you love (like your mother or a sibling). This can includes cuts, bruises, scratches, burns, broken bones and even the loss of consciousness.

Mental illness

Living in a household that’s plagued by mental illness — or even physical illness — can make it hard to adjust and function normally as an adult. When one or more caretakers is absorbed by the darkness of their own struggles, it makes it hard for them to connect and parent with their children on any meaningful level. Instead, the child is often left to fend for themselves where they are forced to find new means of coping both mentally and emotionally, while watching their caretaker struggle to do the same.

Neglect

When our caregivers fail to give us the physical and emotional resources we need to survive (like food, clothing, love and a place to live) this is neglect. Though physical neglect is more apparent, emotional neglect is just as damaging but harder to see — even if you’re living within it. It’s also one of the hardest forms of parental abuse to realize and accept as adults. If your caregiver fails to give you the nurturing and connection you need to thrive, this is emotional neglect.

Sexual abuse

This is one of the most damaging forms of abuse and sadly one of the most common when it comes to childhood trauma. It is estimated by The National Center for Victims of Crime that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys will be the victim of childhood sexual abuse in their lifetime, but these numbers are generally assumed to be higher due to the low rate of reporting.

What it means for our adult lives.

When you grow up as the victim of adversity or trauma, it takes a toll on who you are and it seriously impacts your ability to function in the longterm. Whether it’s forming your own substance abuse issues, or coming to battle your own mental health demons — the way we are raised plays a pivotal role in who we allow ourselves to become later on.

Substance abuse

Growing up in a household with an addicted parent can lead to our own struggles with addiction. Whether it’s food, alcohol, cigarettes, or intravenous drugs — addicts are commonly begot by addicts. It’s also possible, however, to turn to these things as coping mechanism if you were brought up in an abusive or neglectful (if not addicted) home.

Weight issues

When you live with the pain and the shame of a dark or abusive childhood, it lowers our self-esteem and also lowers our sense of self. Outside of that, it can lead to a number of different eating disorders, which can manifest as either a coping mechanism or as a means of finding power in what appears to be an increasingly powerless life. For this reason, many victims of childhood abuse and neglect find themselves struggling with weight issues; whether this is obesity or dramatic levels of being underweight.

Mental health difficulties

P1 Ongoing anxiety, panic attacks and reactions, depression When children are regularly abused or neglected, they often develop cognitive problems.This can include memory problems, poor verbal skills and problems focusing or concentrating on tasks. Likewise, they can also experience a number of mental health issues, which includes ongoing anxiety, panic attacks and even major clinical depression. Altered states can also come into play when you’re the victim of childhood trauma, which cause you to lose touch and lose sight of who you are authentically at your core.

Attachment issues

Those who are traumatised between 6 months and three years of age are more prone to have trouble forming healthy attachments with the people that they care for. Usually, this condition is referred to as RAD or reactive attachment disorder, which affects your ability to form adequate social relationships. RAD can impact everything from your mood to your behavior. It also makes it hard for those suffering from it to trust others.

How to resolve our childhood traumas.

If you’re struggling with the darkness of an adverse childhood, the good news is that there are steps you can take to improve the quality of your life here and now. Don’t let the sins and struggls of your parents become your own. Take action and transform your life by learning how to find the help you need and create the life you’ve always wanted.

1. Get mindful about everything

When we are raised by a narcissist, we are systematically trained to ignore our feelings. Feelings are a threat to the self-obsessed parent, who needs as little conflict from their subjects as possible, in order to create the self-centric world they seek. Our feelings can often be a direct contradiction to the beliefs of a narcissist, and that is something that is absolutely intolerable to them.

Getting mindful about who you are, what you’re feeling and what you need can empower you to transform your life and the memories you’re building for your future. Adverse childhood experiences steal a lot from us, and they do so by stealing our positive emotions and hopes, while invalidating them through manipulation and subterfuge.

Allow yourself to feel what you feel and don’t judge yourself for it. Let the way you feel about your parent or the situation guide you in the direction of what you need most in order to heal. If that means ending interactions with family that were once a part of your everyday, then that’s what it means. No one knows your situation better than you, so allow yourself to be that expert and feel what you feel when you feel it.

2. Invest in some professional help

Facing and resolving the pain of the past is not something that we can always do alone and it’s not something that can be managed simply with the help of a few good friends. Sometimes, it’s necessary to find a specialist when dealing with childhood trauma; but it’s important to make sure you’re finding the right person to help you resolve past issues.

Trauma symptoms vary from case to case and as such need to be assess by qualified and experienced trauma professionals. Finding a therapist who has experience treating trauma like yours can take time, but cognitive-behavioral therapists and EMDR professionals are a good place to start. Take your time and don’t rush into anything that doesn’t feel right.

A professional can help you get to the root of your problems, but you need to be ready to open up and need to know what direction you want to head in. Healing is hard but living eternally in pain is harder. If you think you need more serious help, reach out for it. When you feel better physically, you have more strength to engage in the mental and emotional war of healing and resolution. This puts our overall wellness in clearer focus and makes our efforts to heal more effective and less costly in the long run.

3. Lean into meaningful connections

Trauma forces us into survival mode, a suspended state of animation that monopolizes and uses up all our energy. When you’re in survival mode it’s hard — if not impossible — to get close to people. Experiencing trauma before the age of 10 makes you prone to isolating yourself and cutting of the relationships that give you the love you so desperately need.

Nothing melts shame faster than allowing the full weight of your heart to be seen by another person.You can counteract this behavioral coping mechanism by allowing yourself to be vulnerable and loving with others. Find a small handful of friends (or a lover) and double down on your connection with them.

When you allow yourself to be loved and you give love in return, you send the message to your inner child that your pain is in the past and you are worthwhile as you are. Give the love you need in your life to the right people and you’ll see it returned tenfold to you. Connecting with others doesn’t mean you have to talk about the things that happened in your past (though that is often one of the most healing things we can do). It simply means staying engaged in the normal day-to-day activities that keep us plugged in and feeling like we’re an active and engaged part of this world.

4. Write a new narrative

As children, we have an almost god-like sense of awe, love and respect for our parents. We see them as omnipotent beings, the sole reason for our survival and existence — but when those feelings extend past childhood we often forget to extend that same love and respect to ourselves. In order to find true happiness, we have to learn to write a new narrative for ourselves.

No matter what happened in your past, or what is happening in this current moment, it’s all moot if you can’t love yourself for who and what you are. In order to find happiness, you have to find a way to love yourself — the good and the bad — and you have to find a way to forgive yourself for the missteps and mistakes that led you to where you are today.

Do this by writing a new narrative for yourself. Lean into your boundaries and stop looking toward the guidance of those that would hurt you for their own personal fulfillment or gain. We are the masters of our own destinies, but that can be hard to see when you have a mountain of childhood pain resting behind you. Let go of the darker influences in your past, and lean into embracing the destiny you want for yourself and the chosen family you’re building.

5. Realize how worthy you are

Criticism can be helpful in the right time and in the right place, but what we need even more than criticism is love and respect. Escaping the shackles of a judgmental or ridiculing parent starts with loving yourself radically and unashamedly. The most explosive rebellion you can engage in, when it comes to dealing with poor caretakers, is owning your right to respect and self-love in every single aspect of your life.

As humans living and breathing on this planet, we have a sacred right to be loved, but that love can only come to us when we cultivate an environment of kindness, generosity and respect around ourselves. By surrounding ourselves with those conditions, we can build those qualities in ourselves, but it takes shutting out the things that suck those things out of our lives.

Part of realizing that you are worthy of love and respect is also realizing that you are allowed to slam doors on the people that do not attract these things in your life. When the conditions you need to thrive aren’t meant, leave behind those people who leave you stuck to the past. While your parents might have made your journey to enlightenment harder, the only person keeping you from soaring is yourself. You have to make the decision whether to stay stuck or move forward.

6. Stop the patterns

When we grow up with domineering or abusive parents, we can often be attracted to those people later on in our romantic lives and there’s some pretty compelling reasons for this. All of us are driven to get an ending when things get left hanging unresolved. When we’re hurt by our parents, those hurts linger for a long time and it leaves us searching for the warmth and nurturing we didn’t receive at critical points in our childhood development.

When we don’t feel loved or good enough, we are driven to find a resolution for that need and it ends with us falling into familiar relationships and familiar patterns with people that are just as toxic for us as our controlling, judgmental parents. We look to receive what we didn’t get from our parents with other people, when we should be looking to get it from within. You have to learn to recognize these patterns and break them before they become inescapable.

Living with feelings of hurt and rejection causes us to live in a grey state, where we allow ourselves to be taken over by autopilot and the familiar reactions that are so fundamental to the change we need to thrive. Automatic thoughts and feelings drive us into poor choices and cause us to gravitate toward people that feel comfortable to us — even when they’re toxic. Start with embracing the hurts you don’t want to face. These decisions aren’t conscious ones, but they’re harmful ones, and stopping them starts with identifying your emotional triggers and the injuries that make you numb yourself to the reality of the world around you.

7. Practice acceptance

We all deserve kind, compassionate, accepting and loving parents, but that’s not reality. Some parents are warm and some parents aren’t. That’s just the way the cookie crumbles. The real secret is learning to accept the childhood you had and the parents you’ve got — regardless of their flaws or the ways they’ve hurt you.

Accept that some parents are incapable of showing their love in any way short of criticism. Accept that your parents aren’t capable of accepting you for who and what you are. Learning to accept these things, rather than dwell on them or rebel against them, will allow you to detach yourself from their power. Your childhood happened. It cannot be taken back, relived or redone. There is no point in wasting your energies dwelling on it for the rest of time. You aren’t going to receive an apology for the hurts you received, and no one cares if you punish yourself for the rest of time or not.

Do what you can to move on. Face it bravely, though it hurts, and know that whatever part you played — you were a child, who didn’t deserve to be injured. Don’t compare your parents to other parents. Don’t ask why other people ended up with a mother and father who accept them no matter what. Comparisons will only make you feel worse and confirm whatever delusions you have about “family”. Making comparisons only goes to make you jealous and make you a victim.Neither is beneficial in getting to where you want to go.

8. Uncover the “shoulds”

“Shoulds” are messages we take in which form our “Base Line” on everything from school to relationships and society. These “shoulds” guide our behavior in an almost reactive way, and should be analyzed often for their value in our lives. When you take a closer look at your shoulds (especially the ones formed in childhood) you’ll often find that you’ve swallowed a spoonful of poison along with all that idealized sugar and fluff.

These beliefs come from years of cultivating and reinforcement. They can help us move forward or they can keep us stuck; they’re all the little quiet messages we receive in the in-between. Believing these messages when we’re young might steer us in the right direction, but they can also be diabolical in our adulthood; so it’s important to correct where correction is needed.

Parents can raise us to feel indebted to them, and while this might work as a child, it doesn’t serve an adult who knows their own mind and life. You might feel like you owe the people that gave you your life, but you can cope now — with or without them. Remember that you’re older now and the circumstances are different. If you’re dealing with a toxic or abusive parent that makes you feel bad about yourself — stop it. You’re an adult, and adults don’t owe anything to other adults; no matter what we pretend otherwise.

Putting it all together…

Adverse childhood experiences aren’t just hard, they have longterm consequences on our adult lives. When we grow up being abused, or suffering under the stress of a neglectful or mentally unwell parental figure — it can lead to our own abuse of substances, cognitive dysfunction and even prolonged mental health struggles. In order to overcome the hardship of our pasts, we have to learn how to embrace them and learn how to embrace ourselves for the powerful and worthwhile beings that we are. That’s a journey in itself, however, and one we have to chip away at every day.

Get mindful about who you are and what you really want from your adult life, and get intimate with your feelings and the ways they are linked to the experiences in your childhood. If you’re struggling with a particularly dark childhood saga, enlist the help of mental health professional who can help get your mind and your body back on track. Our friends and chosen family too can do a lot to help us resolve the pain that’s tied into our childhoods. Lean into meaningful connections and write a new narrative for yourself each and every day. You are worthy of the love and respect you were denied, but you’re going to have to stop all the negative patterns of behavior and start accepting your journey for the totality of what it could be. Though the pain of our past can keep us chained to things that don’t suit us, we can free ourselves when we uncover the “shoulds” that shouldn’t be and start taking charge of our own happiness. Make the choice today to free yourself from the shackles of a hard childhood.


Lady Vivra

Self, relationships and mental health. If you’re looking to make your life better, this is where you start.

E.B. Johnson

Written by

Writer and entrepreneur with a passion for personal development, psychology, relationships and mental health. Founder @ Dragr LLC. about.me/EBJohnson

Lady Vivra

Self, relationships and mental health. If you’re looking to make your life better, this is where you start.

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