Is it possible to forget childhood trauma asks Dr Asma Naheed, and do we want to?
It’s no secret that we carry the wounds of our childhood with us. From growing up with divorce, poverty or violence to being exposed to other people’s trauma at a young age, there are some experiences that stay with us. In fact, adverse childhood experiences (known as ACEs) can have a tremendous impact on future victimisation and lifelong health and opportunity. The more ACEs a child experiences, the more likely he or she is to suffer from health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, poor academic achievement and substance abuse in later life. A recent paper from Harvard University likened the effect of toxic stress caused by ACEs to a car engine revving for days or weeks at a time, exhausting our resources and abilities.
I have dealt with several patients who carry their childhood pains and trauma within them. It can be hard to square the the wisdom of the oldest self with the pain and innocence of the inner child. Many of us who experienced trauma or neglect as children have wounds sealed deep within our beings as they grow older.
I believe that we need to open a dialogue with our inner child. It is a crucial part of healing. He or she needs to be acknowledged in order to allow the adult you to move forward, to hear: ‘I see you, I hear you.’
Our inner child is the source of our creativity and happiness. A pure being, without motive or agenda, it watches all our moves and thoughts like a parent. Whenever we do or say something that contradicts our values, it erodes our inner confidence and connection with our inner child. We lose trust in ourselves, which leads to emotional chaos.
It can be challenging for some to realise that our inner child still lives within us, calling for our attention in the form of painful emotions. To accept that our undigested experiences as a child remain central to our being.
The human brain is specifically receptive at a young age, until we are around four years old. Our experiences up until this point will have a significant impact on our emotional routines and the information we use from now on. During this time, our parents unconsciously told us what role we must play in life – perhaps the one who entertains others, or the one who cried too much, or never – and provided us with a script in order to follow societal norms. As adults, this script now affects our unconscious mind. By nurturing and reparenting your inner child, you are able to examine and rewrite that script.
To connect with our inner child, we need to slow down. There are many ways to do so, through activities such as journaling, therapy or meditation. While connecting with your inner your child, it is important to let them know that their safety, consent and choices are valuable. Try to be open to that dialogue between your adult and child self, listen to the child and assess their needs. Give them soft affirmations of love and protection as you would to any child you met as an adult.
One exercise I like to ask patients to do is to write a letter to your inner child and tell them everything, you wanted to hear at that age. This can feel especially cathartic for some, especially if you can close your eyes and imagine hearing those words as a child. Many patients have read their letters to me and they never fail to be enlightening, to shine a torch on areas of pain or unprocessed emotion. To process trauma experienced as a child, your inner child needs a safe space for play and connection. We should not ignore the value or healing ability of freedom.
The inner child speaks through a powerful emotional language that can recreate what we went through in childhood but are unable to express or process. Often, our emotional range of present experience mimics our undigested experience from the past. Our inner child craves attention through the feelings of frustration, powerlessness, loneliness, anger we feel in recalling childhood trauma. Allow yourself to cry, scream or feel without distraction or judgment. Our inner child wants to hear healing affirmations; take a moment every morning to read these affirmations out loud to your inner child.
To cure internal childhood trauma, we have to reparent our inner child. As with so much in life, the way forward is through – we can not continue to abandon or deny our feelings.
Dr Asma Naheed PhD is an educational psychologist and life coach who specialises in therapeutic and behaviour management