Yes, trauma as a child is different to adult trauma, but it is unhelpful comparing the two
Updated: Mar 8, 2021
It is very human to compare ourselves to others. Hold our experience up and see who's had it better, or worse. Rightly or wrongly, it’s how we try and make sense of our place in the world. We compare our careers, health, children, salary… even our trauma. There are interesting academic studies, comparing childhood trauma to adult trauma. These studies shed light on all sorts of things; determinates of health, neurochemical reactions and adapted behaviour patterns. However, in the therapy room – particularly when working with groups – comparisons can be extremely unhelpful.
A key distinction in a child’s experience of trauma as opposed to a trauma survived by an adult is that children are still growing. The relationships around them play a pivotal part in their brain development. They rely on adults and peers to help them make safe connections to the world. An early experience of abuse or neglect compromises a child’s ability to form healthy and stable connections, leading to vulnerability later in life. (See my video on early trauma and vulnerability here)
Generally speaking, adults have already built connections with their world. They have formed relationships with themselves, others and their environment. They have learned what it is to be safe in the world. When a trauma comes along this acts as a sudden break in connection to everything that felt safe. This can be a devastating blow and also lead to vulnerability.
If you’ve ever listened to my podcast, The Trauma Talks, or read my blogs, you’ll know I believe building connections is a great way to recover from trauma. Ideally through psychological interventions, however hobbies, clubs and social activities are also hugely helpful. For people who have experienced trauma as an adult, they may need to re-establish their safe connection with their world, whereas people who have experienced childhood trauma may find themselves working to develop safe connections for the first time in their lives.
Building connections from either of these isolated positions can be daunting and incredibly challenging. They require taking massive risks at a high psychological cost. The human behaviour of comparing trauma, does not help either. In fact I have seen it lead to further isolation. A survivor can feel like their trauma was worse than anyone else’s and no one could understand them, so why try make connections if you can’t be understood? Conversely, a survivor could feel that everyone has had a worse trauma and minimise their experience – tell themselves they don’t deserve connection or help. Both of these positions avoid the risk of disappointment and re-traumatisation, but they avoid connection and recovery too.
As therapists this is where our most basic training is needed. We need to show respect, empathy and unconditional positive regard for our clients, so that they can feel safe enough to fill the therapy room with their own experiences and can connect with the emotions that come with them, free from external comparisons that could minimise or alienate their experiences.
I do believe there are differences between childhood and adult trauma, but I also believe that each client I see is individual and deserves to be treated as such, with respect and uniqueness, regardless of when or what their experience is.