How Childhood Trauma Leads to Toxic Relationships

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childhood trauma

At Emerge Healing Center, we talk about trauma a lot. That’s no accident. We know that trauma affects us in unthinkable ways and can have lasting effects for years or even decades. Childhood trauma is especially important to heal from. Experiencing trauma at young ages, when the brain is still developing, often impacts your attachment styles and how you form relationships. If untreated, childhood trauma can even lead to a string of toxic relationships. Unfortunately, substance abuse is often used as a coping mechanism in those situations, ultimately leading to addiction. 

Below we’ll take a look at types of childhood trauma, what defines a toxic relationship, and how the two affect each other. We’ll also look at how substance abuse plays a role in this and when to get help. 

Types of Childhood Trauma

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network defines childhood trauma as any situation “when a child feels intensely threatened by an event he or she is involved in or witnesses.” This can be a range of events or experiences. This also refers to any individual who is under 18 years of age, not just young children.

The brain continues developing into the 20s, so experiencing trauma in childhood affects things such as attachment styles, how an individual responds to stress, decision-making skills, and more.  

Examples of childhood trauma include, but are not limited to:

  • Bullying
  • Violence at home or in the community
  • Complex trauma 
  • Experiencing natural disasters
  • Domestic violence or Intimate Partner Violence 
  • Medical trauma
  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Refugee children 
  • Sex trafficking 
  • Terrorism
  • Grief 

If not dealt with, either internally or with a professional, trauma can lead to toxic relationships in the future. If you know of a child who is or has experienced some form of trauma, looking for a child therapist is a great place to start healing. 

What is a Toxic Relationship?

“She’s so toxic.” “I don’t need that level of toxicity in my life.” These phrases, give or take, have become popular in our culture over the past few years. While it’s easy to label someone or something as “toxic,” there are conditions and terms when it comes to defining a toxic relationship in the mental health field. 

The first thing to realize is that while toxic relationships commonly refer to romantic partnerships, they don’t end there. Friendships, family, and even co-workers are all possible places for an unhealthy relationship. 

Signs of a toxic relationship include:

  • No support for one another
  • Communication is filled with arguments, hostility, sarcasm, and criticism
  • Consistent feelings of envy or jealousy
  • Attempting to control 
  • Holding grudges
  • Lying 
  • Consistently disrespectful
  • Very stressful
  • Lack of self-care 

A good rule of thumb is to know that while every relationship has ups and downs, a toxic relationship typically is always unpleasant, draining for the people in it, and negative emotions outweigh positive. Also, a toxic relationship doesn’t always mean a doomed one. If both members are willing to change behavior, not just one, there is the possibility of repair. 

How Can Trauma Lead to Toxic Relationships?

The line between childhood trauma and a pattern of toxic relationships is not as crooked as you may think. As children, we form an attachment style with our caregivers. The four official types of attachment styles include secure, anxious-insecure, avoidant-insecure, and disorganized insecure. Secure attachment is a place of health and is the goal. 

If a child experiences any type of trauma that makes them feel like they can’t trust or rely on their caregiver, it affects how they see the world and people. Without that initial secure attachment, they have a harder time trusting others, managing their emotions, and having positive interactions.

Sometimes, a person who experienced childhood trauma unconsciously recreates those unhealthy relationship dynamics in adulthood. Some professionals believe this happens for many reasons, including wanting to fix what they couldn’t in the past, or not knowing another way is available. 

Unfortunately, if an individual experiences a toxic relationship in adulthood, and doesn’t attempt to mend their attachment style, they will most likely have several unhealthy relationships. This can lead to several other dangerous effects. 

Coping with Substance Abuse 

One way that people tend to deal with untreated trauma and toxic relationships is by using coping mechanisms, oftentimes drugs or alcohol. Defined as a method of dealing with unhappiness, stress, or other issues, you can see how many people use coping mechanisms when in toxic relationships. Whether drugs or alcohol or both, there is usually an underlying mental health issue that pushes someone to cope with a substance. 

A coping mechanism may seem harmless enough, almost like a Band-Aid, but masking trauma never heals it. That’s why at Emerge Healing Center, we focus heavily on treating trauma. While not a one-case fits all, we know that substance addiction often begins because of a different unhealed problem. However, once a coping mechanism turns into an addiction, additional treatment is needed, which we also provide. 

Getting Treatment 

If you or a loved one are currently dealing with trauma or addiction and would like to know more about treatment options in Atlanta, contact us today. At Emerge Healing Center, our team can help you to decide which program is right for you, as well as design a treatment program that will maximize your chances of success. Gain control of your life with the help of the right treatment center, and find out just how fulfilling an addiction-free life can be.

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