How much does childhood trauma affect one's life?

When I was about 5–I could have been younger or older, but obviously I can’t remember–I was playing with the next-door neighbor kid, who was my age. We were pretty much good buddies.

That day, we decided to go up to the roof of his house (we lived in Calcutta and there was a fire escape-type staircase to every flat roof, which must have been a construction norm of the time.)

Unfortunately, his sister, who couldn’t have been more than two, decided to follow us up the staircase. It’s unclear why the people responsable for watching her were not around. I remember debating–and if you will recall I was only 5 and have no memories other than this one from that time period–that perhaps it was not a good idea to have Robin (I still remember her name) climb the stairs behind us. But, being 5, we shrugged it off. Robin climbed the stairs behind us, and all I remember today is hearing a sound like a branch cracking, then looking over the stair railing and seeing her lying there in her white frock with a very large pool of blood growing around her head. It’s literally like a painting within my skull.

“She’s sleeping,” I remember telling her brother, and then hearing the frightened shrieks of the servants. Robin died, being pulled off life support (as it existed in 1964 in India.)

Question is, what might an incident like this have to do with my present-day behaviour? Could it have made me more aggressive, fearful or untrusting? I guess it must be like some kind of post-traumatic syndrome or other. What happens to a child who witnesses such horror at an early age?

I think I’m pretty normal but it worries me to think about the ramifications that this thing had on my tiny brain, as I now raise a tiny boy myself.

It’s a haunting memory that I would not wish on any child.

I think the lasting effects of childhood trauma depend heavily upon the way it is dealt with. For example, if you were made to feel guilty by the adults involved, I would think the difficulties in later life would be greater. I also believe that it is never too late to get professional help in dealing with past issues. Basically, childhood trauma must be dealt with very gently and thoroughly (sorry. sp?) as soon after the incident as possible. Of course, people forget much that happens in early childhood. But I think it is probably best to err on the side of caution and deal with it at the earliest opportunity.


Thanks! But since I am now 45 and never had any counselling one way or the other I think my brain has been wired permamently. I have had no contact with the brother whose sister died but I often think that there might be some small amount of blame; that he tosses and turns at night wondering “what if . . .” and blaming me.

Survivor’s guilt, in a way, even though I was too small to have been responsable. I guess we all have to go through life with some cross to bear. But your words make a lot of sense.

CHildhood traumas will control your current life as much as you will let them.

When I was a toddler, my parents put me in a playpen out in the back yard. The neighbor’s dog jumped over the fence and came over and bit me on the face. All through my childhood, I was afraid of dogs and never knew why. I was riding my bike down a hill once and a dog came running out of a driveway towards me; I jumped off my bike to get away from it rather than just pedalling faster…

When I started shaving, I noticed a scar on my chin and asked my mother where it came from. She told me about being bitten, and I thought, “Huh. That explains a lot…”

Still not happy around barking dogs, but now that I know what the original situation was, I can rationalize my way out of unreasonable fear (being afraid of a big dog in its own yard is a reasonable fear; being afraid of a cocker spaniel when I’m inside a car is not).

Actually, at 45, your brain is not hard wired for trauma response. Post traumatic stress can be relieved at any age - the brain is HIGHLY flexible, and research is now showing that this flexibility does not stop at, say age 3 - or ever. It just slows somewhat.

If you don’t try, you won’t know what difference it makes. Survivor guilt at that age can make a very big mess of your life, too - there are people who specialize in treating the siblings of children who died or became very ill. Our state has a whole program for dealing with loss and grief in childhood. Adults usually don’t deal well with the loss of a child, so children are often left hanging. Even when there was even less connection between the sibling/friend and the loss event than in your case, kids will take responsibility that doesn’t belong to them. Along with the guilt, shame, fear, and rage that such events bring up.

What is the worst thing that could happen if you try to find out? Knowing that you are not locked into your reactions, what is keeping you from finding out ‘for real’ (that is, not asking here, but asking a pro, personally) if you have long-term after-effects from that experience?

And yikes. What a horrible experience! I’m going to have nightmares just reading about it. (I’ve got a 16-month old who loves to climb and would follow his 5 year old brother ANYWHERE…)

I definitely agree here. To mirror someone’s dog-biting experience, when I was 5 years old I was bitten in the face (directly under my right eye) by a dog brought to a Tupperware party of my mom’s. I was petting the dog (a poodle) and suddenly it just lunged forward and bit me. Sixteen stiches later, I was no more afraid of dogs than I was before. My parents still had to corral me away from strange dogs without asking if I could pet them first. What was the difference? They never made a fuss about this “evil, uncontrollable animal that must be destroyed” or sued the owners for $10 million so I never saw it as something to worry about for the rest of my life. Obviously this is an isolated case, but you certainly can be affected by traumas as much as you let them.

If someone has that kind of control without outside assistance, then it wasn’t a trauma in the first place. By definition, a trauma is something that is not easily controlled by consciousness or willpower.

Being bitten by a dog was not traumatic for Winnie, but that doesn’t mean anything about anyone else’s reaction. Furthermore, the OP describes witnessing a death, and of course people got upset about it. A dog bite is no comparison to seeing a child get killed – “It’s a haunting memory that I would not wish on any child.”

A trauma can show up in different ways. Each person is different. Do you have friendships and successful relationships? Are you afraid to take risks, or are there things that inexplicably make you over-react?

Trauma gets processed by additional brain structures compared to normal memories (through the amygdala for emotional memories, mostly through the hippocampus for ordinary memories). In fact, you can have emotional reactions with no conscious awareness of what is causing them (based on recent studies with patients who have damage in either the amygdala or the hippocampus.)

*Well said. Thank you. *

I partially agree with MissBungle’s oft-quoted statement. However, some people do not even realize that they are being affected by childhood events until a third party can intervene.

But there are a lot of victim wanna-bes out there - we have some on this very board - who will drag up unpleasant events or situations from their childhood to justify poor behavior. At some point, they will have to learn to take responsibility for their actions and get over whatever happened in the past.

I know I have a fear of heights to this day because of it. It’s not crippling, but I definitely don’t like staring over balconies.

But witnessing the death of a human being in such a graphic fashion at such an age . . . must have rearranged some part of my temporal lobe somewhat.

Maybe that’s why I’m so irritable all the time. . .

I’ve worked with children (as an Art Teacher) for several years and I have seen all sorts of reactions with children. Here are two examples:

An eight year-old boy in a very affluent suburban neighborhood saw his father and sister hit by a car and killed. Mom was nearly absent after this happened, and he was raised by a rather lazy au pair. He was allowed to watch R and X-rated movies, and was just ignored for the most part. This child could not be given scissors because he once stabbed a classmate, and he regularly made very sexually inappropriate comments to female staff members. (If he were an adult, he’d be in trouble for sexual harassment) He remained antisocial and violent for as long as I knew him (four years after.)

A fourteen year-old girl living in a very impoverished urban area had her older brother join a gang. He shot someone, was incarcerated and was shot and killed when he got out. Her mother was hardly Mother of the Year, but was present and honest about what happened. This child became the oldest of five and often took care of her siblings. Even though she was behind in school, she was a responsible and polite child. After two years, she began to catch up in school and remained pleasant.
People have very different personalities and anyone can react differently under the same stress. But the main factors I see in action are how adults act around the child and how much of a sense of personal responsibility the child has. IMHO, I think that kids are much more resilient than adults as a group and that they take less time to grieve as long as an adult is not causing more problems.
(Hope this makes some sense, it was a long day and I am really brain-fried.)

When I was nine-years-old, I was hit by a car while riding my bike across the street. I was just in front of my next-door neighbor’s house, and my little sister was a witness to it.

The accident left with a fractured femur and tibia (which was actually sticking out of my leg – compound fracture) and my fibula was crushed. I spent a month in traction at the hospital and had four operations while I was there (one of which was a bone graft from my hip to my fibula). I was released and spent four months in a body cast. I spent a further two months on crutches as I relearned how to walk.

Once I was fully mobile again, it seemed like the trauma hadn’t affected me at all. I had no qualms about crossing the street or riding my bike again as soon as I could. I know it did affect me in some way because I scared to death of taking drivers’ education in high school. My parents darn near had to drag me to that class kicking and screaming. The way I reacted to it seems a little odd to me, when I think of it now. I would have thought that I would have been terrified of bikes and okay with cars (since by the time I started driving almost ten years had passed).

CHildhood traumas will control your current life as much as you will let them.

I wonder if you know what people are talking about here. Explain a genuine childhood trauma you had (and not just a weird experience that didn’t deeply affect you), and how you have controlled it “as much as you” let it.

This is like saying “its all in your mind”
And SFW if it is all in your mind? If I say to someone with a broken leg, “hey, it’s all in your body” does that change anything?

the fact that you think you’re pretty normal is a sign that you probably are. It’s likely that your scars from the incident aren’t too deep for you to manage.

such an event could make you fearful, mistrusting, aggressive, and a host of other things (assuming you understand that your current behavior has been shaped by an almost infinite set of circumstances and experiences since then)