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Childhood traumas can affect us later in our lives

Childhood traumas can affect us later in our lives

Editor’s note: Please enjoy this Dr. Rosmann column from 2014.

One of the ways my wife, Marilyn, and I like to help our adult children is by providing childcare for their infants so the parents can return to their professions. We spent several weeks during the past holidays with our newest grandchild, four-month-old Michael, as well as his two-year-old sister, Alexandra, who live in Utah.

While Marilyn stayed in Utah, I returned to Iowa the day after Christmas so I could take care of things at home and look after another grandchild, Layla in Polk City, Iowa, until Marilyn returned to Iowa. Both sets of her grandparents take turns caring for sociable little Layla, who turns six months old on Jan. 29.

What fun it was to hear Alex call out “Where’s Papa?” (Alex called me either Grandpa or Papa) when she arose in the morning or from a nap. Equally pleasant were ready smiles from Mikey and Layla while I played with them or changed their diapers.

Providing safe, consistent nurturing care to infants is an important investment in their emotional well-being later on. How babies, both human and animal, are nurtured in their infancy affects their later development both psychologically and physically.

Persons who raise pets and livestock know when animals are terrorized as babies, such as by predators or mistreated by caretakers, they usually fear the source of their terror afterwards. They tend to grow slower and are more prone to health issues.

Four main factors are predictive of the degree of later maladjustment: The severity, frequency and type of trauma, and the age at which it occurred. Dr. Lenore Terr, a San Francisco child psychiatrist, undertook much important work in the 1990s to describe the effects of early childhood trauma.

The more severe the trauma and the more times the trauma is repeated, usually the more lasting and severe the maladjustment. Often the harm cannot be fully undone by therapy.

Terr identified two main types of trauma. Type I traumas are unanticipated but single events that trigger terror, such as a car crash, the death of a parent, or a major illness. Usually children respond well to treatment or good care that protects them after the single event.

Type II traumas are repeated serious events that become anticipated before their recurrence, such as periodic beatings by a drunken perpetrator. The victim anticipates physical abuse whenever the victim detects the perpetrator as behaving drunk or smelling of alcohol.

Type II events can trigger extreme coping tactics, such as becoming emotionally numb or developing amnesia. Type II events usually result in major maladjustment such as dissociative identity disorder (formerly called multiple personality disorder) or other severe dysfunctions that might not be completely rectified even with extensive treatment.

Childhood reactions are not only post-traumatic stress responses but they pervasively influence the formation of behavior patterns. Children who are victims of repeated severe trauma may seem indifferent to pain, show little empathy to others, experience episodes of uncontrollable rage or exhibit a variety of other indicators of serious maladjustment.

Yet some children who are victims of massive mistreatment have enormous resilience to develop more or less normally. They are the exceptions.

How does the age at which trauma occurs factor into later adjustment? As a general rule, the earlier in life the trauma occurs, the more pervasive its effects.

However, the role that memory serves in recording trauma is not fully understood. It is not clear to what extent very young humans can remember experiences; recent research shows children as young as two weeks remember much.

My impression from working professionally with children and from observing my grandchildren is that the ability to remember is significant at a very young age. At just seven months little Alex would cry when her mother was at work if I sang a children’s verse that reminded Alexandra of her mother’s absence. I provided childcare to Alex for almost four weeks when she was two months old and again when she was seven months of age.

I know Alex recognized me as a familiar person four months later, for she immediately reached her arms out to me when Marilyn and I met her and her parents at the airport. Those experiences are precious to her and to me.

Children don’t get to choose the kind of parenting and other experiences they will encounter after they enter the world. Children didn’t start the wars that are occurring currently in half the countries of Africa and one third of the countries of Asia.

The United Nations estimates that almost a sixth of all children in the world experience malnutrition, including about 13 million children in the U.S. who lack adequate food. Too many children experience other maltreatments.

It is gratifying that Marilyn and I can do something to help make the lives of our grandchildren stable, healthy and safe. And it is gratifying that our children want our help with their children. 

The author and his wife reside on their farm near Harlan, Iowa. Contact Dr. Mike at

Dr. Rosmann lives on a family farm near Harlan, Iowa. He is a psychologist who has directed behavioral health programs in response to disasters of all types, Contact him at

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Dr. Mike Rosmann is a clinical psychologist and former farmer/rancher offering advice and commentary on agricultural behavioral health.

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