Did My Childhood Trauma Keep Me From Maturing?

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Reader’s Question

I am a seventeen-year-old girl, and I am fully blind as a result of cancer when I was six. I have had it said to me before that my maturity level might not be what it should be at seventeen because of the trauma I suffered from the cancer at such a young age. Sometimes, I see it in myself. For example, when I don’t get something correct the first time, I often go into a child’s tantrum and give up. Sometimes, during thunderstorms, I’m scared and need my parents with me. There are other times, and they come quite often, when I feel like I’ve gone back to being six years old.

Can my maturity level be affected by trauma? Is my maturity level somehow halted in some circumstances at age six, and that is why I feel like I go back to being that age again? I’m very confused.

Psychologist’s Reply

It’s understandable that other people’s comments have left you confused. From the time of Sigmund Freud there has been the psychoanalytic idea that an individual can get “fixated” (stuck) at a particular point in childhood development if that person did not successfully resolve the developmental challenge inherent in that stage. By extension, some drastic trauma or impairment could facilitate such fixation. Remember, though, that this is just theory. The issue becomes much less clear as soon as we ask what we might mean by “maturity” and “trauma.”

Certainly we all refer to some people (or some behavior) as more mature than others, but what is the standard? When someone has lower frustration tolerance, or greater fear, than we do, it’s easy to chalk up the difference to the other person being “immature.” But who has perfect tolerance for frustration? Who never waivers in perseverance? Who is never afraid? Many older adults consider typical 17-year-olds to be very immature. And what about the importance of the situation, the person’s mood at the time, and what has happened recently? All these things and more affect our behavior and emotional reactions to an event. Then there is the issue of trauma. Many people experience childhood trauma, and unfortunately it comes in nearly countless forms. However, how people are (or are not) affected by childhood trauma also varies widely.

Because you had such a dramatic, definite childhood event at a specific age, it is tempting for people to speculate as to how you were affected. Then, when they see behavior they consider to be immature, the old psychoanalytic notion of arrested development is probably too tempting for many people to resist. Part of the attraction may revolve around the fact that if we can explain the “why” behind something, we feel as though we have some degree of predictability and control. Still, it’s worth asking whether knowing that your perceived deficits in frustration tolerance and fearlessness are or are not due to your having gone blind at age six would help you do something about it now.

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Regardless of the cause, if you are troubled by particular feelings and behaviors, focus your energies on remedying those. Everyone has his or her own temperament that sets the stage for a sort of baseline of emotional reactions and responses to life. From there, though, it comes down to practice and working on one’s own thoughts and behaviors. Map out those aspects of your own behavior and emotions that you’d like to change, and get started on the gradual process of self-improvement. Of course working with a counselor is an option, but so is reading self-help books, relying on friends and family for assistance, and learning about psychology. It’s potentially a life-long journey.

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