Cracks in the Foundation: The Impact of Childhood Trauma


John Steinbeck in his book East of Eden states “When a child first catches adults out — when it first walks into his grave little head that adults do not always have divine intelligence, that their judgments are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just — his world falls into panic desolation. The gods are fallen and all safety gone. And there is one sure thing about the fall of gods: they do not fall a little; they crash and shatter or sink deeply into green muck. It is a tedious job to build them up again; they never quite shine. And the child’s world is never quite whole again. It is an aching kind of growing”.  Just as you have seen in this quotation from Steinbeck, the family is a powerful force and can greatly impact an individual and their development. What is the impact of a dysfunctional family on a child? What happens when the child does not grow up in an environment that supports them? What are the results of the trauma associated with growing up in dysfunctional families?

In this reflection paper, I will begin by talking about the importance of maintaining healthy relationships. From here I will talk about different types of dysfunctional families including families where there is abuse, foster children, divorce, and addiction. Then I will talk about gender and its role in relation to trauma. Finally, I will conclude with a summary of the points I made in the post.

Maintaining Healthy Relationships

Erik Erickson developed a psycho-social developmental model (shown above) that explains the development of a child from birth throughout the lifespan. And what we learn from that model is that in each of the developmental stages there are different crisis that must be resolved the ones related to childhood and early adulthood are: trust vs mistrust, autonomy vs doubt and shame, initiative vs guilt, industry vs inferiority, identity vs role confusion, and intimacy vs isolation. Starting from the time that we are very young the relationships that we have in our lives are very important, the decisions that people in our environment make directly impact our development. If you have relationships in your life that are toxic it will lead to co-dependence which is a precursor for addiction (Sanders, 2017).

Families can lead someone to develop co-dependent behaviors by oppressing the individual through the use of rules (Sanders,2017). When an individual becomes co-dependent they are approval seekers, they fear authority, put others ahead of themselves, become addicted to excitement and fear, and adopt a compulsive personality (Sanders, 2017). When an individual realizes that they have negative relationships in their life it is important that they find a way to perform a relationship detox. Individuals can use strategies like seeking therapy, thinking about their spirituality, and reinforcing their other social bonds (Sanders,2017). In addition, smaller things like rules families can do things that will have a much more severe impact on the child who is still developing.

Dysfunctional Families

To introduce you to the concepts in this section start with the video below.

When we look at children with high-risk development and history of dysfunction in the family are looked at separately, however, it could be beneficial to overlap those two areas and see how those concepts affect at risk children (Ackerman, 2017).  Survivors of dysfunctional families are all different because of eight factors: degree of dysfunction and parental role, types or kinds of dysfunction, reactions to stress, personality and perception, gender implications and interpretations, age and developmental factors, cultural considerations, and off-setting contributing factors (Ackerman,2017). Now let’s explore some of the types of dysfunctional families.

Child Abuse

According to Childhelp, child abuse is defined as “when a parent or caregiver, whether through action or failing to act, causes injury, death, emotional harm or risk of serious harm to a child. There are many forms of child maltreatment, including neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, exploitation and emotional abuse”. Children who are abused are effected in many different ways the first is in terms of development. As you heard in the previous section stage theorist argues that there are developmental stages that involving crises that happen when a parent neglects, or abuses their children (Ackerman, 2017). The child will also need treatment for their injuries that could have long-term or short-term consequences (Ackerman, 2017). Finally, because our parents are supposed to care for us there is an emotional tool on the child who is abused (Ackerman, 2017). So as you can see children who grew up in abusive situations can be greatly impacted.

Foster Children

Children who grow up in foster homes can also have some challenges that they face growing up. Sometimes due to the circumstances of being a foster child an individual can have a hard time establishing meaningful relationships (Ackerman, 2017).  Similar to children growing up in abusive households children growing up in foster care can have issues with development (Ackerman, 2017). These children also have challenges in constructing their identities, and feeling as if they belong (Ackerman, 2017). Overall ½-2/3 of all foster children exhibit some form of metal health issue (Ackerman, 2017).

Children of Divorce

Children who grow up in families where the parents divorce is another type of dysfunctional family. Children in these families have to deal with loss or feelings of rejection when their parents split up (Ackerman, 2017). They have to come to terms with what is going on in their families. They also have to forgive their parents and resolve issues related to their relationships (Ackerman, 2017). Divorce can cause a rift in the family unit that ripples out and effects children in various aspects of their life.

Children of Addicted Families

Children growing up in families where the parents have addiction is the last form of dysfunctional families. Children in these families often feel responsible for the parents well-being, so they worry about their parent (Ackerman, 2017). The way that addiction affects the parent who is using can also cause the children to worrying about future fights (Ackerman, 2017). Children also start to blame themselves and they feel personally responsible for what their parents are doing (Ackerman, 2017). These situations lead to instances of fear. No matter what the type of dysfunctional family we know that trauma is a result.

Gender and Trauma

Men and women have different sources of their trauma and for their treatment to be effective individuals working in human services need to be gender competent.  Gender competence is “the capacity to identify where difference on the basis of gender is significant, and act in ways that produce more equitable outcomes for men and women. To develop gender competence one needs to examine his/her own biases, assumptions, and stereotypes concerning gender and strive to not allow these to interfere with their work with clients” (Sanders,2017). The treatments that are currently in place are methods that address the needs of female clients better than the men’s. Some of the major reasons that men are in therapy are:  father son pain, and male depression (Sanders,2017). In terms of father son pain, some things that are included are the absence of a caring father, the presence of an abusive father, being pushed towards perfection, or a combination of the three (Sanders,2017). Male depression on the other hand includes: lack of a capacity to feel, externalizing the pain, and feelings of inadequacy without hope (Sanders,2017). Men are in a unique position because they are socialized not to feel. They are not allowed to have emotions. They are taught from a very young age that feelings are for the weak, so everything just builds up until the person breaks.


Overall, childhood trauma can be damaging and have a lasting impact on an individual. This trauma doesn’t affect everyone in the same way because of how the type of trauma, and who is perpetrating it varies from case to case. So it is important for an individual to notice toxic relationships in their lives and then take action to resolve them. Lastly, it is important to remember that male and female clients are different and so to address their needs we may need to think of different intervention strategies, rather than using traditional models.


Ackerman, R. (2017). The Emotional and Behavioral Impact of Children and Adolescents Living in Dysfunctional Families [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved 7/13/2017.

Sanders, M. (2017). Relationship Detox [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved 7/13/2017.

Sanders, M. (2017). Gender Responsive Services [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved 7/13/2017.

Sanders, M. (2017). When the Titanic Meets the Iceberg: Addressing the Trauma Underneath Substance Use Disorders, Criminality and Self-Harming Behavior [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved 7/13/2017.

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