Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Children of Dysfunctional Homes
Posted On October 15, 2021
Children growing up in alcoholic or other dysfunctional homes struggle to find their identity in adulthood. They have most likely formed complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) and live with an inner turmoil that matches the instability they are experiencing from parents who are occupied with their own problems.
Since most people living with dissociative identity disorder also live with CPTSD, this article will focus on the formation of CPTSD in alcoholic (dysfunctional) homes and how it affects children and the adults they become.
Complex trauma refers to experiences of children of abuse and neglect that are severe and arise in a child’s early relationships with caregivers, such as living in an alcoholic or other dysfunctional home. Because these experiences occur in early child development, there are many potential impacts on their emotional, social, psychological, and physical development. Not children are affected in the same way as some may show a limited reaction, and for some, the reaction is delayed until adulthood, such as remembering the traumatic events.
A paper written in 2016 sums it up well, “Traumatic events during childhood were associated with later post-traumatic stress symptoms but with classic rather than complex symptoms. Social acknowledgment and dysfunctional disclosure partially mediated this relationship. These findings suggest that childhood traumatic stress impacts individuals across the life span and may be associated with particular adverse psychopathological consequences.”
The experience of complex trauma can lead to many changes in a child’s development, especially on a biological, psychological, and behavioral level (Danese and McCrory, 2015).
Biological. Research has shown that a child who has experienced childhood trauma experiences changes in brain structure and function, higher cortisol levels with associated inflammation.
Psychological. There are changes to how children who have experienced childhood trauma regulate their emotions, develop their sense of self, and impact their self-worth. Complex trauma can lead to an increased risk of mental health disorders such as CPTSD, anxiety, depression, and conduct disorder.
Behavioral. Children exposed to childhood trauma present with many different changes at the behavioral level. These changes include an increased risk of self-harm, poorer educational outcomes, and an increased risk of suicide. There is also a significant impact on the ability of the child to function socially, and they have increased difficulties relating to others.
Forms of complex trauma may include the following (this list is not all-inclusive):
Clearly, complex trauma has an enormous impact on how a child can function, and these changes, if not corrected, continue to afflict them well into adulthood (Danese & Widom, 2020) (Wamser‐Nanney, & Vandenberg, 2013).
Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Complex post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health diagnosis that is so new it does not yet appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the bible of diagnoses published by the American Psychiatric Association.
CPTSD is a diagnosis that captures more symptoms than is available with a formal diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. Some of the symptoms of CPTSD include:
Losing memories of trauma or reliving them
Difficulty regulating emotions that often manifest as rage
Suicidal thoughts or actions
Sudden mood swings
Feeling detached from oneself
Feeling different from others
Difficulty maintaining relationships
Difficulty trusting others
Seeking our or becoming a rescuer
Feeling afraid for no apparent reason
Having a feeling of always on the alert
Becoming obsessed with revenge on the perpetrator
Feeling a loss of spiritual attachment and either ignoring or depending upon religion for self-worth
As with complex trauma, CPTSD is caused by experiencing traumatic events in childhood such as violence, abuse, and neglect but not all people who experience complex trauma develop CPTSD.
CPTSD leaves adults who once lived in an alcoholic or other dysfunctional home reeling in a fog of emotional turmoil that, if left untreated, will lead to a lifetime of suffering.
How Complex Post-Traumatic Disorder Changes Lives
Complex trauma can lead to the formation of CPTSD; we know this to be true. The effects it has on abused children once they become adults is devastating. Below are only a few of the changes and problems adults face who have survived living in a dysfunctional or alcoholic home.
Great difficulty with relationships. Survivors of alcoholic or other dysfunctional homes find it difficult to make and keep casual or intimate relationships with others. Also, survivors do not know how to form relationships and instead will isolate out of fear and mistrust of others.
Problems with Regulating Emotions. Survivors find they cannot appropriately express, express, or control their emotions. A survivor of an alcoholic or other dysfunctional home cannot describe or comprehend their emotions, leaving them either terrified to show emotion or doing so in a volatile manner.
Self-Perception Difficulties. Survivors of alcoholic and other dysfunctional homes perceive themselves as unworthy of dignity and respect. Many grow up believing they are fundamentally flawed or are damaged goods. These survivors have a permeating feeling that they should not have been born and a deep sense of loneliness.
Interruption of Their System of Meaning. A person’s system of meaning involves their assessment of who they are based on their abilities, weaknesses, and feelings. Child abuse interrupts a survivor’s sense of self, leading to a struggle with a belief in justice, ethics, and morality. An interruption of a system of meaning leaves survivors with a contorted outlook on their world.
How to Prevent Complex Trauma and Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from Forming
We know what complex trauma is and what causes complex post-traumatic stress disorder, so you would think that ending these horrific disorders would be simple. However, it is much more complicated than it seems.
Society does not want to acknowledge the existence of childhood trauma, and we ignore the human rights of children for health and safety. Instead, we tend to hide our collective heads in the sand, saying to ourselves that childhood trauma only occurs in other people’s families but not our own.
Preventing childhood complex trauma is so complicated that as a society, we have not come together to talk about it because it seems easier to ignore it and believe the children involved will grow out of it.
How long will we not acknowledge the weeping of children who cry themselves to sleep every night? How long will society turn away and pretend someone else will take care of the problem?
It is up to every adult to watch over children’s welfare everywhere and call out childhood abuse and neglect wherever we see it.
“The damage and invisible scars of emotional abuse are very difficult to heal because memories are imprinted on our minds and hearts, and it takes time to be restored. Imprints of past traumas do not mean a person cannot change their future beliefs and behaviors. As people, we do not easily forget. However, as we heal, grieve, and let go, we become clear-minded and focused to live restore and emotionally healthy.” ~ Dee Brown
Danese, A., & McCrory, E. (2015). Child maltreatment. Rutter’s child and adolescent psychiatry, 364-375.
Danese, A., & Widom, C. S. (2020). Objective and subjective experiences of child maltreatment and their relationships with psychopathology. Nature human behaviour, 4(8), 811-818.
Krammer, S., Kleim, B., Simmen-Janevska, K., & Maercker, A. (2016). Childhood trauma and complex post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in older adults: A study of direct effects and social-interpersonal factors as potential mediators. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 17(5), 593-607.
Wamser‐Nanney, R., & Vandenberg, B. R. (2013). Empirical support for the definition of a complex trauma event in children and adolescents. Journal of traumatic stress, 26(6), 671-678.