Complex trauma is trauma that happens over a long period of time, often beginning in early childhood, and it’s strongly associated with eating disorders. Traumatic experiences range from physical and verbal abuse to less-obvious but still deeply damaging behavior like criticism, emotional neglect, weight teasing, food insecurity, and food shaming.
Complex trauma can lead to a syndrome called C-PTSD or complex post traumatic stress syndrome. PTSD, which is more commonly discussed, is event-based. It shows up following events such as an accident, assault, or natural disaster. However, C-PTSD is layered into a child’s life, sometimes from birth.
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How complex trauma leads to eating disorders
People who identify as having complex trauma are affected as much by what did happen, such as teasing, criticism, and physical violence, as what did not happen, such as unconditional positive regard, emotional caregiving, and support.
All children need emotional caregiving from parents. However, many parents aren’t raised in an emotionally nurturing household and therefore don’t have the skills to provide it to their own children. Thus, complex trauma often happens even when parents have the very best intentions. Almost no parents intend to cause complex trauma, and yet its effects are devastating and can lead to eating disorders and other problems.
Both PTSD and C-PTSD have chronic symptoms, including flashbacks, depersonalization, and dissociation. A person with these symptoms will naturally reach for coping methods, which range from zoning out, avoiding events, people, and situations, and behaviors like eating disorders, substance use, and self-harm.
Researchers say that “the eating disorder may function as a survival mechanism, and may have a protective function to avoid the emotional confrontation with the trauma experience.” Here are a few true stories of complex trauma and eating disorders:
Jenn’s eating disorder started, as so many do, with a diet. Her mom took her to Weight Watchers starting at age 9. Today, at age 38, she is married and has a 3-year-old son, and she started serious treatment for her eating disorder last November. “I see an eating disorder therapist and a dietitian, which is required by my therapist, twice per week,” she says. “This takes the food out of therapy so we can focus on the trauma.”
Jenn believes that complex trauma was the catalyst for her 30-year eating disorder, which began at age 9, alongside those Weight Watchers meetings. She’s now in recovery and is working on her PTSD. She didn’t believe she had PTSD at first. “My therapist said ‘you have complex PTSD,’” says Jenn. “And I said ‘that’s not a thing, I wasn’t in a war!”
Yet after further work with her therapist and reading about C-PTSD all the symptoms lined up. “Getting help consistently has been the best thing I’ve done,” says Jenn. “I’m someone who’s experienced significant trauma and experiences intrusive thoughts all the time – all day, every day. I thought this was all part of my personality. Growing up I thought this is just who I am. Now I realize there’s so much more going on.”
Like so many adults with long-term eating disorders, Jenn is dealing with paying for treatment herself. “My therapist is extraordinary,” says Jenn. “I’m paying for both her and my dietitian out of pocket, which isn’t great, but it needs to happen. I have a son and it’s really important for him to not have to worry about the things I’ve dealt with.”
Tina remembers first restricting food at around 9 or 10 years old. “When I did eat I had very few safe foods and I’d almost always eat alone,” she says. Today, at age 37, she says she’s healing from both her eating disorder and complex trauma. “I am 37 and I finally, for the first time in my life feel free of my eating disorder,” she says. “I don’t like ‘healed;’ that feels false. My anorexia and body image issues will likely always be with me in some way but I don’t believe my anorexia-driven thoughts and feelings anymore.”
Tina sees her eating disorder as intrinsically linked to the complex trauma she experienced. “Given the situation at home, I was going to develop a coping mechanism,” says Tina. “My eating disorder is how that manifested for me. My sister is a perfectionist who attempted suicide in high school. And my brother struggled with alcoholism and self-harm and died by suicide last year. My eating disorder may very well have saved my life.”
While this idea may surprise you, many people with complex trauma and an eating disorder see their disorder as the only way they could cope with their life. Tina describes her eating disorder as a way to “not know” about how bad things were for her and her siblings at home. “The not knowing made it tolerable,” she says. “If I knew how love should feel I would have known I was starving in more than one way.”
Tina began healing from complex trauma and her eating disorder by reaching out to her sister. “We were able to hear and validate our experiences as children and as adults with our parents,” she says. “This was invaluable. We sought out literature together and slowly learned about emotional neglect, abuse, and complex trauma. We are both in therapy now.”
“Healing has felt emotionally what I assume waterboarding must feel like physically,” she says. “At every turn I feel like l will surely die, that the pain is too great and then, I do not die. I learn I have more capacity than I knew and I can trust my body.”
Tina has found validation, meditation, breathwork, and finding ways to feel safe in her body most helpful. “Emotional flashbacks are so difficult,” she says. “Meditation and being present in the moment, in my body, is my lifeline.”
How parents can help kids with complex trauma and eating disorders
If your child has both complex trauma and an eating disorder, you can make a big difference. Your child’s mental health and eating disorder recovery will depend on their ability to process their complex trauma. Keep the following ideas in mind as you help your child heal:
- Do not debate the validity of your child’s memories of their childhood. That will only hurt them more.
- Listen and be compassionate to their experience of their childhood.
- Your job is not to correct your child’s memories, but to compassionately witness their memories and hold them in ways you were unable to before.
- If your child asks you to go to therapy with them, go.
- Get yourself a therapist or coach who can work through your own trauma of supporting a child who has complex trauma. You deserve a safe space to work out your feelings about this. You will be better able to support them if you get support for yourself.
- Keep in mind that most children who have complex trauma have parents who have complex trauma. It tends to run in families. Have a lot of compassion for yourself in this process. It didn’t start with you, and together you and your child can end the cycle of complex trauma.
This is hard for everyone, but never doubt the transformative potential of sitting with your child in their pain and grief. Your ability to do so is beyond powerful. And while you may not want to face this, doing this can result in a deeper, more meaningful relationship with your child.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to change the conversation about eating disorders and empower people to recover. She’s the founder of More-Love.org, an online resource that supports parents who have kids with eating disorders, and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate their kid’s eating disorder recovery.
Ginny has been researching and writing about eating disorders since 2016. She incorporates the principles of neurobiology and attachment parenting with a non-diet, Health At Every Size® approach to health and recovery.
Ginny’s most recent project is Recovery, a newsletter for deeply-feeling people in recovery from diet culture, negative body image, and eating disorders.