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 disrupt 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 equal vulnerability. Sensitive people are innately porous and receptive 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 settings, 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.
Want to know more about toxic family dynamics? Read The Long-Term Effects of Childhood Trauma In Adult Life
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 recognize 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 is not justified, and many turn to blame and shame 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, behaviors, 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 ways; 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 parents 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 tell us we are well, but the fact that we did not feel this way made us more confused.
Looking to know more about toxic family dynamics? Read The Lifelong Effects Of Childhood Emotional Neglect
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”.