When I was 10-years-old, I’d cry myself to sleep. Was there a fight earlier that night? Angry voices echoed around our house like stray bullets. I’d clutch the phone in the upstairs bedroom ready to call 911 if blows were ever actually exchanged (they weren’t). Or was it the memories? Were the images of what happened before making me sob into my pillow?
As a childhood sexual abuse survivor, a product of a combative divorce, and now an advocate for children through my work with coParenter, watching Oprah’s 60-minute segment was the breath of fresh air society so desperately needs right now. We need to look at the broken people among us and instead of asking, “What’s wrong with you?” as Oprah’s story points out, we need to ask, “What happened?”
What is trauma and how does it affect a developing child’s brain?
As Oprah explained, “If you’re a child that’s raised in an environment of chaos, of uncertainty, of violence, of neglect, you are being wired differently.”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, childhood trauma is defined as: “The experience of an event by a child that is emotionally painful or distressful, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects.”
I’ve often wondered, “who would I be if X, Y, and Z hadn’t happened to me?” Looking back on my crying spells in grade school and rebellious behavior that happened later on, I’ve thought, “if I wasn’t abused as a child, would things be different?”
According to Oprah, the experts she interviewed, and those that research how adverse events affect childhood brain development, they very well may have been. My bouts with depression, the crippling insecurity and self-doubt, my periods of profound loneliness and self-loathing, it’s hard to picture my life without them, but they’re par for the course when you had an exceptionally stressful childhood.
The Centers for Disease Control statistic read by Oprah said that trauma could have catastrophic effects on a child’s immune system as well. It can literally “cut your life expectancy by 20 years.” And it can put you or your children at higher risk for mental illness and serious adverse health events. This is a scary statistic for a survivor mom like myself who’d like to live to see her grandchildren one day.
Is divorce trauma?
When parents separate, it’s a major life event that CAN have a detrimental impact on a child. But it doesn’t have to.
For example, two parents who fight constantly might serve their child better by divorcing if it would reduce conflict. While Psychology Today says that divorce can be traumatic, how parents handle their emotions going through it, and how they interact with their children, can make all the difference. Especially in a case where there may be other factors involved, like abuse or neglect.
What can you do?
Despite the many difficult decades I’ve had at doing life, I am now a success story. My social media posts will show you my beautiful kids, my silly husband, and the adventures we take together as a family. I have a college education. I work at a job that I love. What you won’t see very often? The little girl that I once was – scared, confused, and misunderstood. And even though I have almost everything I’ve ever wanted in life, the trauma from my childhood sometimes darkens even the most beautiful moments.
But now, I have children to raise and protect. I have a cycle to break. By taking a close look at the trauma I suffered and being aware of how that impacted me, I am making a huge step in protecting my children and healing myself.
Oprah interviewed survivor and victim advocate Belinda Pittman-McGee who works with women who have fled domestic violence. Pittman-McGee says that she believes there can be real change for the women she champions. “They’ll work it out by first understanding their own trauma, [then by] re-scripting their lives and the lives of their children,” she said.
All You Need Is Love
Oprah said that the 60 Minutes story is one of the most life-changing ones she’s ever covered. It’s had, “more impact on me than practically anything I’ve ever done,” she said.
Every day as parents or coParents, we have a new chance. Every day we have the chance to show our children that there’s a different way. We have the chance to take our most heated arguments into the next room. We have the chance to change the way we communicate about difficult things. We have the chance to ask them what happened, rather than telling them there’s something wrong with them for struggling.
Dr. Bruce Perry, a childhood trauma expert Oprah interviewed for the story, said that relationships could make all the difference in a survivor’s life.
“What he really means is love,” Winfrey told 60 Minutes Ann Silvio. “He’s a scientist. He’s not going to use the word ‘love.’ But it really is about how you are responded to, valued, trusted and loved by those around you.”