Codependency and PTSD have a sordid relationship, usually trailing back to childhood trauma. There are plenty of stereotypes when it comes to childhood trauma. When you hear a child suffered trauma, what comes to mind? Terrible unsanitary conditions and horrific physical abuse?
The truth is, sometimes trauma is the result of a family unable to deal honestly and openly with feelings. If a child is consistently made to feel ashamed or troublesome for having emotional needs, the consequences can carry into adulthood.
When the trauma isn’t confronted in childhood, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may boil to the surface years after the actual trauma event or series of events.
The Ranch Pennsylvania helps families untangle pain from the past resurfacing in present-day life. With the right education and support, anyone can rewrite their story. If today is full of struggle, know that tomorrow could be the beginning of a better life.
Let’s explore the impact of childhood trauma on adults and how mental health treatment unravels this knot of old wounds.
Childhood Trauma: Overview
Between 14% to 43% of children and teens experience at least one trauma during childhood, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs: PTSD: National Center for PTSD.
Childhood trauma can be something like a tangled knot in adult life. One string in the knot is the trauma itself. Another 15 strings make up patterns you developed to cope with the trauma. Factor in all the positive and negative experiences that make you the person you see in the mirror each morning—each experience is a piece of the knot. Untangling the knot often requires patience, expertise from a professional, support and education.
So, how does childhood trauma influence relationships and mental health in adulthood? In some cases, childhood trauma is easy to identify and is especially true when growing up includes chemically dependent parents, extreme neglect or physical abuse. In this case, the knot is full of flaming red threads.
When childhood abuse or trauma is more subtle, the adult living with the aftereffects may only identify the trauma when negative patterns surface with codependent relationships, substance use disorders, work, money, food, etc. Even then, adults often dismiss the symptoms as a personal weakness. These subtle threads can be almost invisible.
Because codependency and PTSD are frequently linked, looking for symptoms of codependency is sometimes a red flag for PTSD.
How Does Childhood Trauma Look in Adulthood?
Charlotte is a 40-year-old attorney with a high-pressure firm in Chicago.
For the decade of her thirties, she threw herself into her work commitment to becoming a partner at her firm. Shortly before her 40th birthday, Charlotte was named a partner, and the firm transferred her to Washington D.C. She is driven, ambitious, perfectionistic and focused.
A month before the move to D.C., Charlotte’s stepdad died suddenly.
Now, six months later, Charlotte is struggling to get out of bed. Her doctor diagnosed her with major depression and suggested she find an inpatient mental health treatment program.
For more information about how major depressive disorder and PTSD overlap, read “Comorbidity between post-traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder: alternative explanations and treatment considerations,” published in July 2015 in the Dialogues Clin Neuroscience.
Charlotte is baffled. She loved her stepdad, but the two weren’t particularly close. She’s confused about how his death left her feeling hopeless about her own future, especially when things are going so well. Everything in her life feels out of focus now.
In a residential mental health treatment facility, Charlotte and her team of mental health professionals begin to unravel what brought Charlotte to this moment of truth. For today, she has no idea how searching her past will give her a peaceful future. She resists the idea, explaining how her mom and stepdad were involved parents, helpful and supported her achievements.
Childhood trauma, however, can happen in any family, regardless of socioeconomic status. Because Charlotte had a mom and stepdad who were attentive to her material and physical needs, she never considered childhood trauma as a possibility.
Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) show up in a variety of ways. The impact can be different for different people. In Charlotte’s case, she experienced depression. In addition, she was more irritable than normal and easily startled. At different points during the day, Charlotte could break into tears for no reason. At other times, she described feeling numb.
Adults experiencing PTSD symptoms may feel any of the following:
Someone experiencing PTSD symptoms may avoid people or places that remind them of the trauma. If the trauma is the result of abuse, the individual with PTSD may avoid the abuser at all costs.
It’s not uncommon for those with PTSD to have nightmares or recurrent dreams about the people or events related to the trauma.
Physical Response When Triggered
If someone experiences a trauma, they may notice the discussion of the trauma years later, or even just a small reminder can set off physical symptoms. The person with PTSD may experience trembling, chattering teeth minus any cold temperature, shakiness or a panic attack.
For a full list of what PTSD symptoms look like, visit the National Center for PTSD.
Some children will experience trauma or a series of traumatic events and react to it immediately or within months. For some, though, especially in cases where families were unable to share feelings honestly or had difficulty expressing emotions, the symptoms of PTSD can bury themselves for another day or year.
To better understand children and trauma, read “What To Know About PTSD in Children” at PsychCentral.com.
For Charlotte, a series of events like the job change, move, and death of a family member triggered her past trauma to resurface. Any stressful event like a divorce, birth or death in the family, a move, or job change can set the stage for past trauma to come to light.
Sifting through the Past
During inpatient residential mental health treatment, Charlotte described major events in her life. One particular event stood out to her treatment team.
When Charlotte was twelve, her parents divorced, and her dad moved out. Charlotte’s dad had an undiagnosed alcohol use disorder. His disorder became progressively worse, making it hard for Charlotte to count on him for anything.
A year later, her mom remarried, and the family moved from the home where Charlotte was born. Charlotte’s mom was overwhelmed by the cross-state move and allowed her new husband to manage most of the details. He hired a moving company to pack everything while Charlotte and her brother were at school. As a result, many toys, books, and pieces of furniture were donated to charity.
Because Charlotte’s stepdad didn’t have an understanding of the attachment some of these items held, he dismissed Charlotte’s intense reaction to the loss as adolescent drama. In fact, Charlotte was punished for being disrespectful to her mother and stepfather.
Charlotte’s mother, relieved to have a spouse willing to co-parent, was happy to give her new husband a firm parental role. Charlotte’s stepfather, however, didn’t have experience being a dad and often rigidly behaved when it came to rules. He demanded Charlotte and her brother keep their feelings in check, get good grades, and obey without question.
Knowing her ex-husband wasn’t available, Charlotte’s mom was eager to clear away the debris from the past and focus only on this new life. She quickly encouraged the children to call their stepdad, “Dad.” Talk of their former life with their biological dad was frowned upon.
Unmet Needs Lead to Codependency
What Charlotte really needed during this adolescent transition was a voice. She needed a chance to express her feelings and know her input counted. She needed a chance to grieve aloud about the home, father, life and items she lost.
Instead, because human beings are imperfect and don’t always handle big life transitions well, she didn’t get her needs met. The transition left Charlotte with some emotional wounds.
Charlotte learned several important and unhealthy lessons from this period in her life.
- She learned major life changes could happen somewhat suddenly, and your opinion doesn’t necessarily count; this is true even when your life gets turned upside down.
- She also learned to protect personal items with any meaning zealously. Charlotte had a hard time getting rid of anything.
- Most importantly, she learned to keep intense feelings to herself.
Instead of sharing any more of her grief or frustration over this life transition, Charlotte became fixated on getting good grades. She knew her mom was tired and stressed. By working hard at school, Charlotte felt good about being a source of her mother’s pride.
While her mother didn’t give her attention to the normal feelings of grief she experienced, Charlotte learned she could count on positive attention for good grades and achievements related to being organized, ambitious, and focused.
Charlotte also quickly learned how there was no outlet for her feelings at home.
These patterns of behavior continued into adulthood. She often ignored her own emotional needs, much like she experienced in childhood, in favor of working harder and keeping busy.
Codependency and PTSD often overlap. As an adult, Charlotte felt drawn to partners who were distant, had histories of addiction, showed signs of narcissism, gave mixed signals and frequently abandoned her without warning. In one long-term relationship, Charlotte was the financial provider and emotional support for a partner who was unemployed and unfaithful. Despite the poor treatment she received, Charlotte compulsively worried about her partner’s feelings. She was devastated when this partner left without warning.
Those patterns of people-pleasing also showed up at work. Charlotte would overwork in order to please her boss until she burned herself out. Self-care for Charlotte was made up of intense workouts and preoccupation with weight.
To the outside observer, Charlotte’s issues with relationships and work seem a continuation of her relationship with her mom and stepdad. Again, she regularly focused on keeping someone else impressed and proud of her work while shelving her own needs.
Treatment for Codependency and PTSD
Charlotte’s healing began when she entered an inpatient mental health treatment program. The support of mental health professionals and other staff gave her the sense of safety needed to revisit those painful feelings from long ago. For Charlotte, the experience was a bit like learning to walk.
For starters, she needed to experience what it’s like to express feelings in a safe environment. By getting honest with herself and others, Charlotte learned how to manage her feelings in a healthy way. She took a few steps in the right direction.
After treatment, Charlotte continued one-on-one therapy and group therapy. In this way, she received weekly support when it came to setting boundaries around a healthy work schedule. When she began overworking out of habit, Charlotte now had a support system of people offering feedback. This healing piece was really important for Charlotte because overworking came naturally to her. She needed people to step in sometimes and tell her, “Hey, looks like you are overdoing it again. Are you taking care of yourself?”
Charlotte’s life looks very different today. Instead of saying yes to every work request, she mindfully considers extra projects in light of her overall schedule. She has a limit of working 40 hours each week. And, vacations are now a priority each year, instead of an unusual event.
Childhood trauma often goes unnoticed as people begin to age. This trauma, however, often shows up in different areas of life. While codependency and PTSD are frequently bedfellows, the two don’t have to be a life sentence. Treatment is available to untangle the two.
The Ranch Pennsylvania is always here to help you and your loved ones reclaim the life you were meant to have. If you suspect a past trauma is hurting your life or a loved one’s life today, give us a call. We can help you sort out the next right step, 866.947.7299.