Luisa Tam
SCMP Columnist
The Naked Truth
by Luisa Tam
The Naked Truth
by Luisa Tam

How to deal with childhood trauma and build more meaningful adult relationships

  • By tackling the wounds you received while growing up, and coming to terms with them, you’ll get a step closer to healing and having a happier life
  • Only when you have love for yourself, can you really have love for others

Unresolved childhood issues that often lie dormant for years can suddenly come flooding back. Not only can this be painful for the individual, but it can hurt our relationships with other people, especially romantic ones.

They say a difficult childhood can have many lifelong negative effects, such as the inability to form meaningful and long-lasting relationships, build trust, or intimacy with another person.

We all desire love and connections because we want to feel safe, be heard, seen and understood. In the absence of these, it can make us feel alone, alienated, unloved and depressed, says Michelle Harris, a personal, relationship and couples’ empowerment guide.

Even a child who is in a relatively loving family can feel alone and isolated. In other words, it does not just affect children whose parents have split-up, or those with absent parents or abusive parents.

Early childhood trauma can leave a person feeling alone and isolated as an adult. Photo: Alamy

A child can feel disconnected from parents or siblings, especially if they feel they are being judged, or denied the level of love and affection they desire. As a result, they can also feel traumatised for being “left out”.

Consequently, Harris says, it can bring conflicting emotions and feelings. “Those with childhood issues can crave love and connection, but also fear it, or believe they don’t deserve it and push it away.”

Coming to terms with childhood wounds will lead to a healthier relationship with others. Photo: Alamy

Furthermore, she points out that “our childhood experiences are crucial to our emotional and mental development, our sense of safety and place in the world, as well as how we relate to others.”

However, she adds that the impacts of a traumatic childhood can differ from individual to individual. Some symptoms include anxiety, depression, self-blame, mood swings, neediness, lack of trust, feeling unworthy, fear of abandonment and rejection, as well as an inclination to reject others and be left alone. All in all, the feelings and emotions are often complex and conflicting.

When in a relationship, a person with childhood trauma will show a lack of desire for intimacy and love because they fear being close to another person, due to an underlying fear of being abandoned, says Harris.

You may be aware of the trauma or you may not, but healing the wounded and traumatised ‘inner child’, or the wounds from childhood, will help you open up to healthier relationships
Michelle Harris, a personal, relationship and couples’ empowerment guide

Some will also have difficulty expressing needs or showing their emotions, while in some cases they are at the other end of the spectrum, and instead become highly emotional and have difficulty controlling their emotions.

Other signs include not willing to be open, avoiding communication due to a fear of confrontation, a tendency to be emotionally “vacant”, or to be overbearing to the point that it stifles their partner.

In some extreme cases, Harris says, the person might try to sabotage their relationship because on some level they don’t feel they deserve love.

“They will try to create arguments and conflicts as a way to be in control or to push their partners away and avoid getting hurt. They often display inconsistent behaviour, such as the push-pull dynamics which means they want love sometimes but reject it in other times, which can be very confusing for their partners.”

Problems in our childhood can hurt our relationships with other people when we get older. Photo: Alamy
As a result, Harris says, people haunted by their childhood traumas often do not want to commit to a long-lasting relationship. Sometimes, they subconsciously attract partners that do what they fear or recreate the failed relationship of their parents, or copy the same patterns of their unhappy childhood to experience the same pain.

Fortunately, there are self-help tips for those whose adult relationships are being affected by childhood trauma. First, you have to heal the wounded inner child and break out of the recurring traumatised childhood patterns.

“What can happen in romantic and adult relationships is the ‘wounded inner child’ comes out, which means awakening the trauma from childhood,” says Harris.

“You may be aware of the trauma or you may not, but healing the wounded and traumatised ‘inner child’, or the wounds from childhood, will help you open up to healthier relationships and lasting and healthy love.

“When triggered, it is important to remind yourself that you are reliving a part of you that is the traumatised child and recognise that this is not the ‘whole’ of you. Then give yourself time and space to process the trauma to work things through.”

Michelle Harris is a personal, relationship and couples’ empowerment guide. Photo: Michelle Harris

Harris adds: “All our relationships are here to teach us something, and can often reflect back to us our core ‘wounds’, so becoming mindful of what that is, is a step closer to healing it. See the positive and see it as a ‘gift’ of learning.”

For example, for those who have felt unloved or emotionally abandoned as a child, the message may be to learn to become self-reliant or to cultivate a sense of independence and self-motivation, or to boost your “inner leadership” for self-empowerment.

“Ultimately, I believe we are all being asked to go ‘within’ to connect to that inner core part of ourselves and feel the love inside of us,” she explains.

“Treat it as an opportunity to start to feel love within first, and then once we have a healthy dose of self-love, we can extend this out to others. Our relationships are showing us more about ourselves so treat it as a learning opportunity to come back to yourself.”

Self-help methods include daily meditation to go “within” and develop an inner connection so as to build self-love and boost self-esteem. You can also work with a guide, therapist or healer to help you move on from the past, Harris advises.

How to help a partner with childhood trauma

1. Help them feel safe to express themselves and to know their feelings and experiences are valid.

2. Take time to listen and give them room to express themselves. Provide unconditional love and a listening ear, even if you don’t fully understand.

3. Do not take things personally as they are “reliving” or living with their trauma; you are not the cause of their trauma, but you can help to ease it.

4. Create boundaries, but do so without disregarding your own needs. Healthy and balanced relating requires both sides to feel honoured and respected.

5. Encourage them to seek the professional help they need to heal and allow them time to process.

6. Keep communication honest, open, and flowing. Create some “talk time” to share.

7. Focus on the strengths of each other and the relationship, not just the triggers and wounds.

8. Help them develop self-love.

9. Avoid labelling and justifying everything “because of their traumatic past”.

10. Love them just as they are including the wounds and issues.

11. Be patient, compassionate and understanding.

Advice supplied by Michelle Harris.

Luisa Tam is a correspondent at the Post