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Does Childhood Trauma Define Us as Adults?

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This paper explores and discovers components of marriage, family, and couples counseling and how trauma in relationships and family suffering can be treated. Several scholarly articles and other sources have discovered that marriage, family and couples counseling has proven to be highly effective, however; this research paper will attempt to discover this type of counseling through ethics, treatments, different traumas, and the counselor mechanisms. Several resources aided my research to ascertain the information I needed regarding the different components of trauma, therapy in relationships, couples counseling, suffering family, and the counselor. My ethical research was used to help establish a foundation of laws within marriage, family, and couples therapy to be considered during client sessions. My additional resources were used for creating the house of this paper to discover the components and research of trauma related to marriage, family, and couples counseling and how it can be treated.

In this paper, I will conduct my own research through testimonials from interviews with Donna Kay Smith, a former Minister in Pennsylvania, who shared her counseling and personal experiences with me. While we know from my sources that marriage, family, and couples counseling enhances lives and helps those through trauma to eventually form healthy relationships; I will seek out through both research and experiment to discover the effectiveness this therapy truly has when trauma is a factor. Marriage, family, and couples counseling is not only a surface related snag, but an evil that in some cases is rooted from other traumatic experiences in the person’s life.

Keywords: LMFT, marriage and family therapy, couples counseling, divorcee counseling, Christian counseling, ethnicity and family therapy.

Healing Trauma through Marriage, Family, and Couples Therapy We must understand how the body is affected by trauma and its central position in healing its aftermath” (Levin, 1997, p. 3). The key to healing is physiological. Issues this family, couples, and marriages affect our minds, bodies, and souls equally. The key to understanding that it can be healed is the wisdom to understand that what happens in your life is something that becomes a part of you and it can be healed through therapy and support (Bosma, 1999). Marriage, family, and couples counseling is a form of therapy that for counselors is “…rewarding, fulfilling, and deeply moving. Having a thorough understanding of what is ahead of you will enable you to make the best choices for yourself and your clients” (Roskelley, 2008). These same feelings can be transformed to the souls of the hurting clients that are treated for any type of family or relationship related tribulations through counseling if the counselor is effective and working within his/her competence (Hay, 2008).

“Traumatic symptoms are not caused by the ‘triggering’ event itself. They stem from the frozen residue of energy that has not been resolved and discharged; this residue remains trapped [from our childhood] in our nervous system where is can wreak havoc on our bodies and spirits” proposes Levine (Levin, 1997, p. 19). Let us first discuss how childhood trauma and effect is it has on a relationship, marriage, or family. Broken marriages and difficulties with relationships (couples) have the possibility to stem from a childhood trauma or a trauma during early adulthood. If the issue is not dealt with the trauma during the crisis time period, it will follow into adulthood and create harms in the relationships that the individual attempts to form. Thus, resulting in marriage complications; possibly even family complications if children are involved. Struggles and challenges in family and marriage situations are related to the individuals within the relationship and how they view themselves and their partner.

In-depth research has shown that individuals who have experience relationship trauma in his/her early life are more likely to succeed in destroying the rest of the relationships he/she tries to have in the future. The result of this trauma when trying to make relationships work in older age, usually ends in loneliness and depression for those who have been traumatized, due to relationship distress (Mead, 2002). There are many forms of childhood trauma that could lead to destructive relationships with others, including spouses. Grief is a common factor in why women resist love from loving and respectful men due to a grieving situation that has left them lonely and depressed. The first steps of grief are “…shock, numbness, disbelief, or outright denial” (Feldmen, 2011, p. 617). For example, grief comes in many different ways and although the individual has experienced it and may not show it, it affects the relationships they are in with their significant others. Later on in life they will begin to act out in different and destructive ways because they never dealt with the feelings they had bottled up (Feldmen, 2011). If the grief is not dealt with through therapy, it could potentially have more of a dangerous impact on their physiological makeup and the choices the person makes within relationships.

“It does not cause any physical damage so often it goes unnoticed” (Feldmen, 2011, p. 256). This is a common factor in family therapy. Now let us see how children in the home suffer from the trauma of their parents’ relationships and how therapy can help. For example, parents constantly fighting and children being exposed to an unhealthy nest is potentially dangerous to their psyche and to their ability to develop healthy relationships with other’s as they grow up. Family therapy is used to help enrich the child’s life and improve the child’s way of dealing with the unhealthy situations at home (Brown, 2011). The counselor, however, is ethically under confidentiality agreement with the child and will not reveal the child’s discussions unless the child is threatened by hurting him/herself or someone else due to the feelings of anguish they possess (Jovanovic, Aleksandric, Dunjic, & Todorovic, 2004). However, the counselor does have the right to intervene with the family and suggest counseling with them all together, instead of just sending the child individually. Often counseling becomes an individual process, when really dealing with relationship related issues such as marriage, families, and couples therapy must be sought out in a manner that includes all parties of the problem in order to find a solution.

An article posed on MedicineNet.com discusses the causes of Bipolar in children and teens. “Bipolar Disorder runs in families. Children with a parents or sibling who has bipolar disorder are four to six times more likely to develop an illness, compared to children who do not have a history of bipolar disorder in their family. Commonly, Bipolar disorder also leads to high anxiety an Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD)” (Bipolar Disorder in Children and Teens). Bipolar disorder also stems from high anxiety in the home and other related trauma during childhood, however there has not been enough research done to prove what exactly causes bipolar disorder in children besides genealogy. Anxiety, suicide, mania, and other symptoms will always be a part of the bipolar patient, even as an adult. That said counseling the child is important, however family integration is needed for an effective and operate treatment and recovery. If the counselor does not work with the child and the family regarding Bipolar Disorder, then the treatment is not effective on the child alone. The family deserves and has the right to the resources to help the child at home. The same goes for an individual who suffers from Bipolar Disorder as an adult, the spouse or other should be involved in treatment because he/she needs the education of the disorder to help the “sick” once outside of the therapeutic setting.

The New Life Spirit and Recovery Treatment Center website often posts articles and blogs regarding PTSD, Attachment Theories, Bipolar Disorder, and other mental illness cases in children. This article particularly, “Codependency Attributes” discusses how persons develop attachment issues in a home that is not a positive environment, leading to co-dependency in their adult lives. Codependency normally results from “…an individual whose environment was out of control and because of this, he or she developed survival skills in order to maintain a sense of control. As a result, a codependent will often manipulate people and circumstances to get a desired result in a subtle or indirect way. These traits are normally branched from attachment disorders that could have begun anywhere from the first 0-3 months of an infant’s life” (Codependency Attributes, 2011). A lack of identity is formed from the adults who have been through any traumatic attachment or abandonment situations as a child, because they don’t know where they belong or who they belong to. There is often a lack of boundaries as well and destructive behavior is normally associated with codependents.

“Counseling codependents can be difficult for a counselor due to the attachment need from the counselee. It’s a common discrepancy in MFT counseling” (Seligman, 1973). “In a dysfunctional family system, compensation rather than definition of roles and responsibilities in the home is emphasized. This means every family member is in a survival mode of getting his/her needs met and avoiding danger in the home” (Codependency Attributes, 2011). These individuals grow into adulthood forming unhealthy relationships and their reactions to events are often dangerous and out of control if they do not get what they want. They are often self-righteous and judgmental in addition to clinging to any type of happiness available – leading to substance and alcohol abuse. Codependency is a dangerous boundary-related disorder in itself that comes from the attachment of the child to the family during the early years of his/her life.

It perhaps can define an individual and how he/she reacts to relationships; however, the choice to not let it define the individual is up to him/her. In addition, “…people are genius at developing ways to defend themselves psychologically from uncomfortable situations to they become hyperviligant, constantly scanning their environment for danger and often develop dangerous behaviors from this trauma” (Lisa Brookes Kift, 2010). Couples who suffer from problems in the home or from any kind of problems in general that go to counseling are taking the first step to functioning at a healthy level with one another. Typically the blame is one or the other, however; the counselor acts as an unbiased mediator who helps them both to understand one another and how to work together to create a steady and nourishing environment for their relationship.

“Challenge a few unrealistic beliefs, alter some in habitual thought patterns, and people will eventually make their way back to where they came from” (Beck, 1998). “Couples will often take the slightest slight and blow it up into a monumental problem”, Beck continues (Beck, 1998). Couples tend to over dramatize situations in a relationship, gender plays a big role in this and let us discuss the different roles of the genders in relationships and the treatment that assists with understanding the other. “Couples have a tendency to bury messages inside innocuous statements or to ask innocuous questions loaded with grievances; for example, when a woman asks her husband to help their child with homework. She may tend to say something along the lines of ‘do you think you can get your face out of the TV and help our child with her homework?’ when she should have approached the situation perhaps with ‘you’re so good at math, do you think you can help her with her homework’” (Beck, 1998). Here we are observing how couples tend to lose the respect they begin their relationships with and tend to feel comfortable enough to disrespect one another and think it’s ok just because they are married, when it isn’t ok. The ethic of reciprocity is to treat others how you want others to treat you.

“Part of the problem in many marriages is that there are so many social ingrained differences in the thinking and communication styles of men and women. Women, for instance, are in the habit of displaying more listening skills than are men. Likewise, problems occur because women are taught from the time they are little to discuss intimate problems openly, while men have been cautioned repeatedly to remain silent about such matters” (Beck, 1998). As a counselor, it is essential, ethically, to be unbiased to the man and woman who are attempting marriage or couples counseling. Marriage and couples counseling is often began with the blame game and as a counselor you are under oath to prevent the pain of both parties the best you can, while allowing them to express their feelings and hurt to one another. This can be tricky for a counselor to know when to step in and when not to during a therapy session gone bad.

“A women’s view is ‘As long as you can talk about problems, the marriage is working’. A man’s view is ‘As long as you have to talk about problems, the marriage isn’t working’, that about sums it up” (Beck, 1998). Although most trained therapists can identify that this will be pointed out to any couples having trouble, “… the traditional counselors don’t always solve fundamental problems because they often do little more than proffer the kind of advice ‘a very wise friend would give’” (Beck, 1998). As we can see, often the problems in a marriage or relationship of any kind is the lack of understanding and communication between the opposite sex and these issues tend to be bottled up individually and lead to an unhealthy marriage, finally an essentially tough home for the children if these issues are not resolved in therapy.

Finally after much research through articles and books, I realize that I couldn’t conduct a research without a testimonial from someone who has been through childhood traumas, made bad decisions in relationships as a result, and was healed through marriage and family therapy, along with God. I knew I had to use someone other than myself. I could write for days how I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder at 12 years old and how my mother was an addict, or how my father is in prison and has been since I was 7 years old and I’ve been in and out of family therapy for years due to behavior and wrong choices. However, I chose instead of sharing my success story (because I truly am the result of the conclusion that marriage, family, and couples counseling is a healer), I would share a compelling woman’s story about trauma. We will discover how it affected her, the choices she made in relationships and within her family, and how she overcame all her demons and is now a successful student, wife, mother, social movement leader, and most of all good friend through MFT Therapy and Divinity School.

Donna K. Smith is a former United Methodist Minister in the Pennsylvania Annual Formance, mother, wife, documentary director, student, and social-advocate for the mentally ill. Did I mention her degrees: BA in psychology, Certified Rehabilitation Counselor, Masters of Rehabilitation Counseling, Masters of Divinity. Pretty impressive, isn’t it? What would this woman know about recovering from childhood trauma after you look at her resume and meet her in person – believe me you really would never know. However; our dear friend Donna shared her story with me when we met a ways back, and both of us believe God brought each other into the other’s life for a reason, we are currently working on a documentary on mental illness together. Today Donna has allowed me to share her story with you. Read the words and feel the anguish and the pain and the trauma this woman had gone through in her life, and then listen to your heart and to God as you follow her story to the end of a path she can now lye her head on in peace.

“I was sexually molested as a child; I was 10 years old, Tiffany. He was a community member of ours; he owned the corner candy shop where I stopped on the way home from school every day. I spent $1.00 every day at that store to buy sweet-tarts that were 10 cents each. Then I went home and went to my room and read my books. One day on the way home from school that man asked me to do something for him and he would give me free candy. Now back when I was 10, they had those large stamps that you would stamp prices on the products with. Keep this in mind for the next part of my story. I agreed to join him in the back where he kept all the stock and he asked me to turn around, so I did. He then took my left arm and moved it back and forth. I thought I was stamping items, but wasn’t sure why I couldn’t see what I was doing. Well I left that day and took my free candy. Put 2 and 2 together and you’ll understand what I was actually doing. This went on for some time, as I well, did what I did to him and received my free candy and went home. One day it clicked in my head on what he was making me do to him. I was disgusted with myself, I was ashamed, I was bad, and I thought God didn’t love me. I didn’t love me for what I was doing; I used to think of myself as a prostitute for sweet tarts.

I wouldn’t dare tell my parents or press charges because the whole world would know what I did and I was awful. So I didn’t tell anyone until I got to college, but I never remembered when I told someone. I’ve carried this burden for a very long time, this feeling of shame and blame and disgust with myself. I blamed myself. It led me to distort my sexual relationship with men. My way of getting attention from men, as an adult, was to be a sexual object. I was this very bad 10 year old girl and consequently through my 20’s my relationships were always sexual. I never could say no to stand up for myself. I had no boundaries. I had no self-image or esteem. I put myself in dangerous situations in high school. When someone from the church’s brother died I offered him my body as an “I’m sorry”. I was never in control of my mind or my body. I always shut down emotionally when I had sex, and I would repeat what happened when I was 10 years old again. I did what I needed to do and played with the scenario a million ways with men. I wanted affirmation and I found it in sexual encounters. I couldn’t say no, I needed validation. I knew this was wrong in my late 20’s, 29 to be exact. I ended up in a bad marriage, shocking. When I was 29 my husband beat and raped me. We then got divorced and I took him to court, despite my childhood fears.

If I do not stand up for me who will? My father’s voice is always in the back of my mind saying set boundaries, stand up for yourself, protect yourself” I then realized I had to set boundaries around how other people treated me or no one else would. I was 29 when I realized this. I knew when I got into Divinity School and ended up talking to someone I was interning with a Pastor, she said “I’ll never be able to be an effective minister if I don’t face this abuse”. Deep inside, through therapy, I was this little bad girl. I had to face this and go through the mental interaction of this little girl inside my head. I had to love her and name her good, a child who wasn’t bad or ashamed. She was a child and didn’t understand what she e did in that candy store when the man stood behind her and had her touch him. I came to terms, perhaps a redemption with myself and this little girl inside of me. Through meditation and church, I named this little girl good. I held her in my arms the way someone should have held me when this all happened. Then – like that – It was over. I could now move on I chose to deal with my trauma and move on. I don’t carry shame anymore,, I made a conscious effort not to . I learned how to teach others how you want to be treated. I decided to take my power back and now I love me and that little girl inside of me.

We are the same person and I love us. I decided to take my power back. I couldn’t let what happened to me define me – just like you didn’t let it define you, Tiffany. Did it impact my life negatively, of course! Now I’m stronger and I’m never willing to give my power away again. I love who I am and I love my life. I knew I could do it. Be proud of yourself, you did it too!” Compelling story isn’t it? Donna now lives with her husband and her son is grown, but she is working towards a social movement for mental illness. She wants other’s to recognize that trauma effects who we are and the decisions we make growing up, that could be potentially life-threatening. She wants resources such as MFT counseling to become more known an available to families. When Donna turned 29, she chose to no longer let her trauma affect the way she was going to live her life, the way she was going to act in relationships, the type of mother she would be, and finally the boundaries she would set for others and how they would treat her. The way she was going to be in relationships with other people was going to be positive this time, especially her second husband and her son.

After Donna finished her family therapy and eventually moved towards individual therapy after remission, she told me it was the most enriching and life lifting experience she had ever had to be able to be herself in front of her family in an environment where it was ok to be “her”. In conclusion, as you have read through book quoting’s, journal articles, my life story, Donna’s life story you can see that marriage, family, and couples counseling is highly effective in healing all types of trauma’s – this paper only discussed a few. Childhood trauma has an enormous effect on who we are as adults, as you can see through Donna’s story and what it led her to do and how she reacted to relationships, but she chose to over-power the power of the trauma through therapy and faith. Being dysfunctional is a choice, families and marriages do not have to be dysfunctional and out of control, there is help and saving for them and their children.

The emotions and the pain don’t really ever go away once a couple or family has gone through a dysfunction, the pain is always with you, but embracing your dysfunction allows you to become one with your trauma and allow you to re-claim who you are as a person, because God has plans for all of us, and staying victim is not one of those plans. See yourself as God see’s you and accept that he loves you and you love yourself. That’s a choice you must make as an adult. Marriage, family, and couples counseling teaches us above all to: re-connect with your child, your teen, your adult, and your relationship with God and define yourself as a human being, not a victim because you have sought out for help, not let help heal you.


Author: Braquehais, M. D., Oquendo, M. A., Baca-García, E., & Sher, L. (2012). Is impulsivity a link between childhood abuse and suicide? Comprehensive Psychiatry 51.2, 12. Beck, T. A. (1998, November 29). Health Marriage Therapy High Divorce Rates Lead to father of Cognitive Therapy to Write a Pop Book for Troubled Couples. Los Angeles, California, USA. Bipolar Disorder in Children and Teens. (n.d.). Retrieved from MedicineNet.com. Bosma, H. (1999, January). Social class in childhood and general health in adulthood: questionnaire study of contribution of psychological attributes. Retrieved from Creative Visions Foundation: http://www.bmj.com/content/318/7175/18.full Brown, W. K. (2011). Growing Past Childhood Trauma. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 5. Codependency Attributes. (2011). Retrieved from New Life Spirit Recovery Treatment Center: http://www.newlifespiritrecovery.com/Codependency_Attributes.html Corey, G., Schneider Corey, M., & Callanan, P. (2010). Issues and Ethics in the Helping Professions, 8th Edition. Belmont: Brooks/Cole. Feldmen, R. S. (2011). Developement Across the Life Span. New Jersey: Pearson. Hay, B. L. (2008). You Can Heal Your Life. Accessible Publishing Systems. Jovanovic, A. A., Aleksandric, B. V., Dunjic, D., & Todorovic, V. S. (2004). Family Hardiness and Social Support as Predictors of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder . Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, Vol. 11, No. 2, 10. Kagan, J., & Snidman, N. (1999). Early Childhood Predictors of Adult Anxiety Disorders. Society of Biological Psychiatry, 6. Knight, C. (2009). Introduction to
Working with Adult Survivors of Childhood Trauma: Techniques and Strategies. Belmont, CA: Thomson Higher Education. Levin, P. A. (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books. Licsw, R. H. (2010). No Blame/No Shame: Self-Empowerment Tools for Healing and Building Stronger Families. Bloomington, IN: Author House. Lisa Brookes Kift, M. (2010, August 30). Childhood Experience and Adult Anxiety. Retrieved from The Toolbox at LisaKiftTherapy.com: http://lisakifttherapy.com/mental-health/mental-health-articles/childhood-experience-and-adult-anxiety/#printpreview Mead, E. D. (2002). Marital Distress, Co-Occuring Depression, and Marital Therapy: A Review. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 299-314. N. Kato, M. K. (2006). PTSD: Brain Mechanisms and Clinical Implications. Japan: Springer-Verlag. Roskelley, C. W. (2008). On the Road to Becoming a Successful Marriage and Family Therapist. St. Louis, Montana: Femme Osage Publishing. Seligman, M. E. (1973). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. New York: Grafton Books. Teena M. McGuiness, P. (2010). Childhood Adversities and Adult Health. Journal of Psycosocial Nursing, 15-18. Waite, R., & Shewokis, P. A. (2010). Childhood Trauma and Adult Self-Reported Depression. ABNF Journal, 8-13.

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