The Misunderstood Nature of Complex Trauma

complex trauma trauma Jan 09, 2024

By:  Lauren Rudolph, LPC

EMDRIA Consultant

When it comes to trauma, there are still myths floating around out there, such as: Trauma is only something veterans and people who go through life-threatening situations experience. Some people may still think “trauma is only in your head” or it’s something that will negatively affect your life forever.

It wouldn’t be surprising then that complex trauma, a relatively new concept, has its misconceptions and lack of understanding out there. Complex trauma typically refers to trauma that occurs in childhood and is ongoing, such as emotional abuse and/or neglect, bullying, domestic violence, etc. It can also include traumas experienced in both childhood and adulthood.

Here are 4 things everyone needs to know about complex trauma:

1. Complex trauma is often what did not happen to you

We tend to think of trauma as something that happens to someone. However complex trauma allows us to understand that we can be traumatized by what didn’t happen, but was supposed to. One of the most common examples of this is neglect. Emotional neglect is even more difficult to spot than physical because physical neglect typically looks like not getting enough shelter, food, clothing, etc. Emotional neglect is when a caregiver or parent fails to meet the emotional needs of the child. This is traumatizing because our emotional needs are just as important as our physical needs. If our emotional needs go unmet growing up, we may be left feeling unsafe and unsettled.

Emotional neglect can be so difficult to spot because it can be unintentional. For example, a child who had a parent who was severely depressed when they were growing up or a caregiver who was sick and hospitalized for a while may have emotional needs that were not met, through no intention of that parent. I’ve found that unintentional emotional neglect is the most difficult for clients to talk about in therapy because they don’t want to place any blame or shame on the parent who may have done their best. So I work to create a space where we can understand, rather than judge or blame.

2. Children are more likely to be traumatized compared to adults

Adults in therapy to address childhood trauma sometimes have a difficult time understanding how something that doesn’t seem “that bad” now could have affected them in a significant way. I think this happens because, as adults, we often forget how small and helpless a child is, and how dependent they are on their caregivers to keep them safe, protect them from harm, and ensure their survival. Children are so highly dependent on their caregivers to survive, which means that they can be more easily traumatized by those caregivers. Also, a child’s nervous system is not fully developed, which means that they have less of an ability to regulate their emotions and manage overwhelming situations.

3. Complex trauma is difficult to accept, especially for survivors

At some point during therapy when working with a survivor of childhood trauma, I often hear them start saying things like, “Maybe it wasn’t so bad” or “I don’t know if this was real”. This seems to happen for different reasons. One is that things were so bad that it is difficult to believe that all those bad things happened to that one child. Another reason is that things were good at times, and parents did try their best, yet the child still experienced trauma, and it’s difficult to reconcile these two different experiences happening to one person. It’s important to keep in mind that everyone understands and accepts their experiences in their own time. As a therapist, my job is to hold space for them, not to push my beliefs or expectations onto the person I am working with in therapy. Similar to grief, acceptance can come and go in waves throughout the person’s healing journey.

4. Complex trauma has a silver lining

This is a line I borrowed from Pete Walker, who has written a few books about complex trauma. He explains that because responses to trauma are learned, they can be unlearned. Some mental illnesses are not this way and are based on genetics and cannot be unlearned. This means we’re not stuck with the effects of trauma for the rest of our lives. We can learn new ways of thinking, new beliefs about ourselves and the world, and new ways of engaging with people and ourselves.

Want to learn more about Complex Trauma and Dissociation? Check out the following trainings offered by Trauma Specialists Training Institute:
- A Closer Look at Complex Trauma and Dissociation
- Ego State Interventions and EMDR


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