Toxic Family Dynamics and Complex PTSD (C-PTSD)
— The wound of being ‘too intense’
Developmental trauma, or Complex PTSD, results from a series of repeated, often ‘invisible’ childhood experiences of maltreatment, abuse, neglect, and situations in which the child has little or no control or any perceived hope to escape. Growing up in an environment full of unpredictability, danger, parental inconsistencies or emotional abandonment, these individuals are left with ’hidden traumas’ that disrupts not only their psychological but also neurological and emotional development.
When it comes to emotionally intense, sensitive and gifted individuals, we ought to be cautious of the confines of categories and diagnoses. Far too often, the most creative, forward and independent thinking people are being misunderstood, mislabelled and misdiagnosed.
Being sensitive does not equals vulnerability. Sensitive people are innately porous and receptivity to their environment, making them painfully aware of not just physical sensations, sounds and touch, but also relational experiences such as warmth or indifference. In critical, undermining setting, they may devolve into despair, but— and this is important to note— in a supportive and nurturing environment, they thrive like no others.
It is true that because of their unique ways of perceiving the world, they are acutely aware of and have more intense internal responses towards existing problems in their early lives, which may exacerbate the impact of any developmental deficits and trauma. However, sensitive children respond to not just the negative but also the positive. They may be more prone to upsets and physical sensitivities, but they also possess the most capacity to be unusually vital, creative, and successful.
In other words, the intense and sensitive ones are not born ‘vulnerable’, they are simply more responsive to their environments. And with the right kind of knowledge, support and nurture— even if this means replenishing what one did not get in childhood in adulthood— they can thrive like no others.
THE INVISIBLE TRAUMA ( C-PTSD )
In the past, psychologists have typically focused more on the impact of ‘shock trauma’ from extreme events such as accidents, wars and natural disasters. However, there is a second type of trauma that is very real and pervasive, yet not captured by the traditional diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The term Complex PTSD describes chronic childhood trauma such as emotional neglect or parentification, that are invisible in nature.
It is easy to recognise when a child is explicitly, physically or sexually abused, but the impact of having inadequate or deficient parents can be elusive and escape our collective awareness. Sometimes the trauma could even be about what your caregivers did not do (omission) rather than what they did (commission).
Unfortunately, unlike shock trauma or physical abuse, the psychological injuries caused by emotional abandonment or alienation are often invisible and unacknowledged. This may leave these children feeling confused; assuming that their traumatic experience are not justified, and many turn to blaming and shaming themselves. Even as adults, they may suppress or deny these painful memories as they dismissively compare their trauma to those who were more ‘noticeably’ abused.
Growing research has found that a wide array of psychological difficulties finds their roots in these chronic childhood relational and attachment injuries. Children who experience this type of trauma show a disrupted ability to regulate their emotions, behaviours and attention, and these symptoms often extend into adulthood, leading to clinical presentations including Bipolar Disorder, ADHD, Borderline Personality Disorder and even chronic physical pains (APA, 2007).
TOXIC FAMILY DYNAMICS AND THE SENSITIVE CHILD
Some of the toxic family dynamics sensitive/ intense children can get locked into include: Having depressed or emotionally blank parents, having controlling parents, enmeshment, having to step up as ‘little adults’, having to face parents’ envy, being scapegoated as the black sheep.
Being parents to a sensitive and emotionally gifted child has its own rewards. However, they need to be very mature and highly aware. Many parents do not have all that it takes. Most of the times, parents do not exploit or abuse their sensitive children on purpose, their limited understanding or experience get the best of them.
The families of emotionally intense children end up in one of two way; they could allow themselves to love the kid, however painstakingly, or they reject the child for his or her strangeness. In an experiment conducted by Andrew Solomon, involving interviews with over 400 families, he observed that in the case of having atypical children, would-be good parent were extraordinary, going the extra mile if the need arose and the would-be bad parents were downright abusive. He concluded that having an exceptional child exaggerates parental tendencies.
Complex or developmental trauma is detrimental because they are invisible. On the surface, we looked just fine. We were provided with all the material things we need; clothing, food etc. But the way we feel inside does not measure up to what our appearance portrays. There is sometimes a pressure to keep up an illusion of a “normal happy child from a normal happy family”. Our parents and society tells us we are well, but the fact that we did not feel this way made us more confused.
Here, we lay out a few toxic family dynamics a sensitive and intense child often gets locked into:
When we as an emotionally sensitive child was born in a neuro-typical family, it was difficult for the family to understand us. As such, we quickly became the cast away; “the different one” or the “difficult child”.
It takes a lot of patience, maturity and strength to bring up an emotionally sensitive child. However, due to all sorts of reasons, from trauma to lacking in emotional incapacities, not all families can do this. In a healthy family, there should be enough room for each member of a family to express themselves as individuals. But in families with little tolerance of differences, the child becomes the scapegoat; the black sheep of the family.
Being scapegoated may not mean that our family did not love us. Usually, people resort to making a scapegoat of an individual to avoid dealing with their own emotional turmoils. As soon as someone is scapegoated, the family will try to make it stay that way so that they do not have to deal with their own problems or vulnerabilities. When we try to change or leave, we may be emotional blackmailed or manipulated.
The following may indicate you have been scapegoated:
You were criticised for innate attributes or characters such as sensitivity and intensity.
Name tags such as “weird”, “trouble” etc.
Unequal treatment compared to your siblings.
Your mistakes or errors are blown out of proportion and were punished more than is necessary.
You were not paid enough attention when bullied.
No one cared enough to know or understand or listen to you.
Your family dismissed or downsized your achievements.
Once adopted, we find it difficult to shake away this scapegoat role, even as an adult. We may carry this assumed identity all our lives.
While we may intellectually understand later in life that we were not the cause of the family problems, shifting from the self-loathe to self-love requires profound emotional healing. We must know we were never the cause of chaos in the family; neither were we responsible for solving any problems. To heal, the child in us must go from being in denial to anger to finally finding freedom and release.
Parental guidance and protection are crucial in developing a sense of safety and foundation within our psyche. Some parents, however, cannot provide this due to insufficient emotional resources. If this is the case, the parent-child roles are reversed; the child becomes the parent, and the parent becomes the child. This parent-child role reversal is known as parentification.
Generally, there are two types of parentification. Emotional parentification happens when the child becomes the parent’s emotional support. This could occur when a parent shares the innermost details of their anxieties and worries with the child – intimate details the child is really too young to process.
Instrumental parentification is when the child engages in physical labor and support in the household, such as doing the housework, cooking, cleaning, taking care of younger siblings, and other “adult” responsibilities.
Between the two types, emotional parentification has the direst consequences in terms of childhood development. In psychological terms, it is considered a form of abuse, exploitation, and neglect that is difficult to respond to.
Parentification can happen in several ways; the parent was behaving child-like, confiding in the child on sensitive matters, or relating with the child as a peer or close friend. If we had been put in these situations, we would feel obliged to step up to the role to deserve the parent’s love. The effects on our sense of self-worth and our idea about love are far-reaching, though not immediately apparent.
Parentification is a boundary violation. We were forced to grow up faster than we should. We had nobody to look up to or rely on for guidance. We had to learn and accept that our needs would not be met and that having our our dreams and desires was not acceptable. As a result, we learn to shove our feelings down. We learn to deny our innermost thoughts and ignore our own needs so we can avoid disappointing our parents.
When parentified, we had to parent our siblings as well. We might end up feeling short or like we failed because by default, it is impossible for a child to perfectly fit in the roles of a parent. We may also feel guilty when when we have to leave home (e.g. when we go to college and have to ‘leave our siblings behind’). Psychologically, we feel like parents walking out on their children.
There is no way we could have helped their parents with their emotional pains or many dissatisfactions of their lives. We believe it was our fault and that we were not enough. This affects us even as we grow into adults. We have an overly obligated sense of responsibility in relationships and may overcompensate for this. We do not learn to say no or know when to stop giving. We are always too eager to help or rescue other people from pain and might be attracted to partners that take more than they give. Eventually, we can become emotionally drained and fatigued.
What makes the situation worse is our difficulties in getting angry at our parent. When we were parentified, we intellectually understand they did not mean to be abusive and were just limited or vulnerable. As a sensitive child, we felt very compassionate and protective of our parents. This protective instinct hinders us from admitting the truth of what we have been deprived.
Ongoing research has proven that this sort of abuse is a risk factor in a child’s normal development. It leaves deep emotional wounds that endure into their adult years, adding to the challenges already present. Behavioural manifestations that begin in childhood tend to become worse in adulthood, making it challenging to maintain healthy relationships.
Our suffering continues as we enter adulthood. As the primary caregiver for our parents and siblings, there is often no emotional support, no safety net. For the most part, we were expected to keep it together and never show signs of distress. As adults, we may have trouble saying “no” to people. We are often unable to express anger and have a hard time trusting others.
HAVING EMOTIONALLY UNAVAILABLE PARENTS
Some caregivers can be emotionally unresponsive to their children due to mental illnesses, limited psychological capacity, work or health demands and neuro-atypical traits like Asperger’s syndrome, ADHD or autism. This unresponsiveness, in turn, makes the children feel shut out and abandoned.
Parents need to acknowledge children’s expression for them to develop a sense of self-worth. This is done through a process called mirroring. Children need to feel wanted and welcomed by their parents. To achieve this, parents applaud a child, encourage them and converse with them in an affirmative way.
Sure, a parent cannot be there for the child at all times. A parent has work or other commitments to attend to. But as a baseline, we receive enough mirroring experiences to have a foundation. If we have received sufficient mirroring as a child, we will have enough memories to draw from and no longer requires constant reassurance. We will grow up with a good sense of self-worth and an ability to self- regulate. If , however, we have not had enough mirroring experience, the development of our internal-mirroring would have been hindered, and part of our psyche remains child-like and dysregulated.
In the Still Face Experiment by Edward Tronick in 1975 (there is a short, provocative video clip on Youtube) which demonstrates the process and importance of mirroring, a mother is asked to keep a blank face and ignore the child’s attempt to engage her. The child “rapidly sobered and grew wary” on getting no response from the mother. On several failed attempted, he resigned and turned away, looking hopeless. These events occurred quite quickly, that they could have gone unnoticed. The experiment shows that we learn to regulate emotions by mirroring. Babies only learn to manage and regulate how they feel when they have other people as mirrors.
This skill is particularly crucial for empathetic children. We are likely to have an active mirror neuron system that makes us more prone to emotional contagion and being affected by other people’s feelings. It is easy for us to get overwhelmed by other people when we cannot self regulate.
Adults in some families may disapprove children with scorn when we try to connect with them. This emotional neglect takes a substantial toll on. We do not easily forget these hurtful events.
According to the Separation-Individual theory (1975), babies have a natural symbiotic relationship with their mothers at birth. However, they still need to have a sense of self and know their mothers as a different entity from them so that they can develop healthily. However, some parents have a hard time letting go and separating themselves from their children, usually due to their own insecurities or unfulfilling lives. This eventually denies the child opportunities to take risks, explore, make productive mistakes and become resilient.
Anxious parents may subtly send emotional messages like “I cannot survive without you”, “don’t go”, “don’t grow up”, “you can’t go”, “you can’t make it without me”, “it’s a dangerous world out there” to their children.
Often, these parents’ need to be in control comes from the fear of being dispensable. They may try and use the child to fill a void they feel from being displeased with their own lives or relationships. Alice Miller, in her seminal work “The Drama of The Gifted Child”, explains this situation. On having a child, the parent may feel as though she finally has someone who will love her unconditionally and proceed to use the child to fulfill her own need to be wanted (the female pronoun is used in old psychoanalytical texts. We should be careful not to preserve this mother blaming culture). We can imagine why it is tempting for the parents to use an empathic child as a confidant— they are loving, perceptive and sensitive. They can sense when their parents feel down even before they do.
When our parents’ needs override our need to be independent, we develop an identity that is tailored to suit their needs. After all, we were afraid of losing their love. This results in enmeshment— a relationship where people become excessively involved with each other. In enmeshment, family boundaries are blurred or non-existent. A switch in someone’s mood quickly affects the whole family. Since we did not grow up with firm emotional boundaries, we struggle to set them as adults. We have a blurred sense of identity and find it difficult to differentiate between our feeling and the feelings of those close to us. We feel an obligation to help others, sometimes compulsively. It may be difficult for us to have balanced relationships.
Enmeshment often occurs under the guise of love, loyalty, family or unity, which makes it even more deceptive. Rather than love or family, it comes from a place of fear. A truly loving family encourages the young ones to be independent, to be a “self” rather than an “us”. A child should not feel like there is a condition which he is loved. Parents should not feel like their children are their only source of happiness, fulfilment or wellbeing.
Enmeshment is not a malicious scheme by parents. It often is a family pattern, passed down from generations. Parents are usually not even aware that they are enmeshing their young ones; they only are repeating a cycle.
COMPETITION AND OPPRESSION
Parenthood comes with an array of emotions; anger, joy, grief, pride, and so on. While it is not commonplace to talk about it in society, jealousy is one of these emotions that parents can feel towards their children.
Parents with unfulfilling lives are particularly threatened by seeing what their children have— opportunities that were not available to them in their youth. As they watch their children grow, their childhood wounds are reopened, and they go back psychologically to when they were children. Sometimes, they even begin to perceive their children as competitors.
This becomes a paradox. On one hand, they genuinely want their children to succeed. On the other hand, they feel intimidated seeing their children more beautiful and more successful than they were or are. They may feel betrayed as the child becomes more independent, considering how much time and energy that had sacrificed for the child. Parents who are not self-conscious may out their resentment and envy in dysfunctional ways. They may give their children back-handed or sarcastic compliments, subtle criticism or even more direct attack and scorn.
Generally, parents are their children’s first role models. However, when the supposed role models insult us for our accomplishments or put us down, we begin to develop low self-esteem and hate ourselves. As adults, we may feel very guilty or ashamed of our successes in life. We may even sabotage ourselves, stay average and purposely underachieve.
Carl Jung explains that nothing has a stronger psychological influence on children than the unlived lives of parents. Although it does not make up for how they behave, most competitive parents at a point in their childhood were victims of deprivation. They find it difficult to give positive feedback to their children because they never had it.
HOW DO WE RELEASE PAST TRAUMA?
All that has been said so far may be disconcerting.
It is possible that you had hoped and you were disappointed but kept hoping regardless. Or that you were hurt and betrayed but still believe in love. It is possible to feel confused by the several trains of emotions that you have for the family that could not understand you.
From the point of view of human evolution, the bond we form with our parents or caregivers is one of life-or-death and so, the idea that these people we totally depend on can fail us or that we can disappoint them is terrifying. We have historically suppressed the anger or resentment we had for our parents because that was the only way to survive.
Despite becoming adults, a lot of us still have an estranged relationship with anger.
We find ways to rationalize or justify the rage we feel because we feel threatened by it. We say “they did the best they could” to downplay our pain.
Most of us do not feel safe enough to handle our rage and spend so much of ourselves trying to drown it. We may binge eat or numb ourselves, becomes aggressive to ourselves or fall into depression. Sometimes, the bottled-up rage in us explode unexpectedly, and we sabotage our current relationships with those we love.
Anger is a universal energy. It needs to be acknowledged and released from our system.
Anger is not the same as blame.
There is a hidden belief that comes with anger: “someone must have done something wrong”. This follows that “if no one did something wrong, then it must be me. I must be at fault”.
In truth, blame does not have to follow anger.
We may consider separating our parents’ toxic behaviours from the people they are from a spiritual perspective. Perhaps we can try and understand that their dysfunctions come from pain that they inherited. We can see them as ill-equipped humans rather than ‘our parents’. They are fellow people affected by a universal, inescapable pain body.
We can also try and remember that although the pain we feel feels very personal, we are independent of it.
Sometimes, we are only sharing part of a collective, universal human suffering, some of which was only passed down to us.
Our trauma does not define us.
We are not our past.
“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”
― Mother Teresa
Signs and symptoms of Complex Trauma (C-PTSD)
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE BURY UNSPEAKABLE TRUTHS
WE BECOME DISSOCIATED AND FEEL DEAD INSIDE
Cumulative trauma has the power to force our childhood into foreclosure. Our true self is the part of us that is free, spontaneous, and fully alive. But having been emotionally abandoned by our caretakers, we have also learned to bury our true self. Such disconnection comes not from one single traumatic experience, but an accumulation of painful emotional memories— when our enthusiasm was met with coldness, our passion misunderstood, our feelings silenced or our actions punished. The innocent, most alive part of us- our Soul, our True Self, or our Inner Child- is forced into hiding.
Because the repeated emotional abuse or neglect was so painful, we had no choice but to dissociate. Our numbing may involve disconnection from the body, our emotions, and other people. we can continue to function in the outside world, but don’t feel connected. We hide ourselves from our passion, spontaneous aliveness, and the ability to be vulnerable. we observe everything with intellectual curiosity but remains distanced. The result is an emptiness that derails our sense of being. Deep down, we feel guilty for having forsaken our truths.
WE FEEL DEFECTIVE
Children naturally blame themselves for what happens to them.
When they are bullied, they believe it is because they are not good enough.
If they seek attention from their parents but are neglected, they believe they are too needy.
If they are burdened with demands that they cannot fulfil, they believe it is their failure— Failing to be a perfect child, failing to take good care of their siblings, failing to sooth their parents’ anger.
If, as an intense child, we are scapegoated as the ‘problematic one’- the one who is ’too much’, ’too sensitive’, the origin of all woes in the household- we would believe we are at fault, and internalise a sense defectiveness. We then believe that we are disgusting, ugly, stupid, or flawed. Our toxic shame binds us with beliefs such as ‘nothing I do is good enough’, ‘there is something wrong with me’, ‘I am bad and toxic’.
Toxic shame makes us think we deserve little and need to settle for less. It stops us from fulfilling our potential as we hold ourselves back.
WE BECOME HIGHLY ANXIOUS
If our parents are emotionally unstable, or if due to their vulnerabilities we felt the need to take care of them, we become the ‘little adult’ at home. We are hyper-vigilant, always watching out for the earliest smallest clues of our parents’ emotional fluctuations so that we could protect ourselves and our siblings. This hyper empathic tendency doesn’t go away, and we carry it into our adulthood.
Our nervous system remains in a continual state of high arousal. We may feel we cannot relax and have to always lookout for danger. We may be irritable and jumpy, suffer from insomnia, and other anxiety-related disorders and obsessive-compulsive tendencies.
Our bodies store traumatic memories more than our mind does. As a result of childhood trauma, we feel ungrounded and uncentered. We are like frightened children living in adult bodies; when the unexpected things happen, we are overwhelmed and feel close to breaking down.
WE RESORT TO ADDICTION AND COMPULSIONS TO COPE
Our brain is designed to protect us; when we come across a particularly difficult or traumatic situation, it will be stored in a way that is ‘frozen in time’. We may not even remember it. We are not sure what triggers us, but our suppressed memories come out in the ways of uncontrollable mood swings, persistent sadness and depression, and explosive anger.
Through addictive behaviours of any form, from drinking, spending, eating to compulsive sex, we try to either A) Numb away the pain that we try so hard not to feel, or B) Fill the inner void. However, this can escalate into a compulsive cycle, for the numbing/filling effect from these external agents never last long, and the moment their effect cease, we reach for more. It is a dead-end escape route that never leads anywhere.
WE ARE FEARFUL OF CLOSENESS
Trust, interdependence, acceptance all requires a degree of vulnerability our wounded skin finds too hard to bear.
If we had not felt welcomed into the world, we would always feel like an outcast, someone with no hope of finding belongingness in the world. All our life, we are caught between the intense need for kinship and an extreme fear of contact.
After having been betrayed by those who were supposed to love and support us, we decide that we would no longer take any pain and disappointment. We thought if we stop hoping or believing in anything or anyone, we could avoid the potential let down. instilled in our subconscious is the belief that it is risky to have hope and expectations, so we don’t attach to anyone or anything to avoid disappointment. Suppressing painful memories consume a tremendous amount of energy. if we bury our betrayal trauma without processing it, we relate to the world through the lens of grudge and suspicions, and push people away.
On the other hand, if we had grown up in a chaotic household, or that our parents are overprotective or overbearing, we fear being smothered, losing control or losing a sense of individuality. We fear being asked for too much, and thus distance ourselves and withhold.
Retreating from closeness does not necessarily mean isolating entirely, but we may feel the need to conceal parts of our authentic self. on the surface, we are social but we don’t get close to anyone. Or maybe we settle for false- closeness in sex but never commit to knowing anyone in depth. We hide our passionate, loving self, and become cold, cynical, and sarcastic. Withdrawing into our shell whenever we feel vulnerable also means not able to take in support and love from others.
Eventually, we lose hope in finding anyone who can understand us.
WE DAMAGE THE LOVE THAT WE DO HAVE
Neuroscientists have found that parents’ responses to our attachment-seeking behaviours, especially during the first two years of our lives, encode our view of the world. If as infants, we have consistent attachment interactions with an attuned, available, and nurturing caregiver, we will be able to develop a sense of safety and trust. In contrast, when our parents are emotionally unavailable to us, we would internalise the message that the world is a frightening place; when we are in need, no one will be there.
This results in a deep fear of abandonment. As adults, any kind of distance, even brief and benign ones, may trigger us to re-experience the original pain of being left alone, dismissed, or disdain. Our fear could trigger coping survival modes such as denial, clinging, avoidance and dismissing others, lashing out in relationships, or the pattern of sabotaging relationships to avoid potential rejection.
Fear of rejection or abandonment may also bring us to put up with a damaging relationship or stay in an abusive one. The message that we received from our unhealed wounds tells us that being mistreated, degraded is still better than being on our own.
WE SABOTAGE OUR SUCCESS
Our experience might have led to believe our success and happiness would threaten our siblings, attract envy, and that we were somehow ‘arrogant’ if we were achieving high. Perhaps our parents were too limited in their worldview to comprehend our gifts, and deep down we carry a ‘survivor guilt’ that says if we achieve more than others or outgrow our family, we are betraying them. Even only subconsciously, we become frightened of our power.
Expecting little of ourselves and others may make sense when we were little people who live under the mercy of unpredictable and explosive caregivers, but no longer serve us if we wish to step into a more prominent place and to live fully.
Specific Healing Goals
The bouncing back process for developmental trauma is different to the therapy for simple PTSD, general depression or anxiety.
Because of the complicated issues around a personal sense of safety and stability, being exposed to traumatic materials before you are ready can lead to re-traumatization, and reinforce the cycle of hopelessness. Themes such as safety, mourning, and reconnection are some of the key themes specific to this process. The following are some of the healing goals that are essential:
Locating or developing an internal sense of safety
Building connection with self, the body, and emotions- through mindfulness and other mind-body techniques
Expanding the ‘window of tolerance’ for various emotions, so you are not constantly in either state of hyper-arousal (acute stress, rage, tension, and panic) or under-arousal (dissociating, disconnecting, feeling empty and depressed)
Finding ways to cope when feeling overwhelmed, without resorting to avoidance or compensatory behaviours (overeating, overspending, and other impulsive habits)
Learning to experience connection with others as enriching rather than tiring or threatening
Becoming aware of and finding ways to preserve your energetic boundaries
Neurologically regulating the nervous system in order to cope with day-to-day stressors and triggers
Lessening the impact of your internalised shame, and the voice of the inner critic.