Complex trauma is related to early disruptive attachment experiences, in which the body was unable to manage intense relational stress. The traumatic stress involved in complex trauma, is usually on-going as it occurs in a primary relationship. The mental health field has named this, ‘complex post traumatic stress disorder’, C-PTSD, and refers to the form of trauma that occurs in relationship, particularly early attachment figures.
What is complex trauma?
Complex trauma, as could easily be imagined, causes far more severe symptoms, disrupting developmental physiology, brain-neurology, and social, interpersonal growth later in life. Complex trauma is a deliberate experience, versus an accidental trauma, such car accidents, natural disaster, physical accidents.
The most common form of complex trauma is child abuse, neglect, or abandonment. Since a child is dependent on the care-giver for safety, the absent, dismissive, or abusive parent, has a secondary traumatic result, besides the physical or emotional trauma, there is the trauma of the loss of ones access to basic necessities in life, food, shelter, as well as emotional warmth, and physical support. This loss of protection, security, and warmth, creates internal instability for the child of it’s place in the world. Client’s struggling with complex trauma will have a hard time trusting support later in life, believing the world is not a safe place, devoid of actual human care, empathy, and love.
Complex trauma is in fact a complex and multi-layered experience. When a child is traumatized it may seek help, but any attempts to reach out are threatening to the perpetrator, and so a secondary trauma occurs, leaving the child in a cycle of compounded trauma, managing the experience all on it’s own, developing deep internalized narratives about the victimization, leaving the child with little hope for managing the pain than dissociation from the whole experience, making it difficult to resolve the pieces of the puzzle later in life. Working with complex trauma will involve entering into the edges of dissociation, recovering small amounts of early experience, reclaiming a safe and effective way, those expressions of traumatic events to the young and developing nervous system.
Demystifying complex trauma.
A quick review of complex trauma can be found at, “Understanding Complex Trauma” by Christine Courtois. her article speaks of those for whom violence is occurring inside a family system, over time resulting in deeply insecure attachment styles. This complex trauma becomes a family system dynamic, repeating through internalization of unresolved and repeating distress from family members. This form of chronic abuse creates deep issues of trust, safety, and protection, as the child does not have enough processing time to reclaim emotional homeostasis after each assault. The result is anticipation, anxiety, and hyper-vigilance around safety. The common facility for learning and growth becomes instead coping and survival.
Understanding complex trauma in children and adolescents.
The article “Complex Trauma in Children and Adolescents” by Bessel van der Kolk refers to complex trauma as having two main challenges. First, the child’s exposure to repeating traumatic events and second, the effect of this exposure on human relational bonding. Accumulative exposure to complex trauma is caused when a child is sexually, physically, or emotionally abused. The result of complex trauma may further bring about accumulative traumatic stress through addictive coping behaviors… Safety is fostered through attachment to a healthy parent, without which children with complex trauma lose agent capacities for self-regulation, self-reflection, and interpersonal growth; turning away rather than exerting an influence on the world.
Complex Developmental Trauma (CDT)
The article “Developmental Trauma Disorder” by Tori DeAngelis speaks to the lives of traumatized children, who have been involved in on-going trauma. Unique from what has been typically named post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) these traumas are expressed in children with varying symptoms correlating to their stage of development. To differentiate these trauma responses a new diagnosis is being revealed as, complex trauma or ‘developmental trauma disorder’. PTSD is a good definition for trauma in adulthood, but does not measure up in regards to children, who are traumatized in the context of relationship and whose brain is still highly formidable, having a far more pervasive influence.
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