Childhood Trauma and Its Effects on Adolescent Development
In this paper we are going to discuss the effects childhood trauma can have on an adolescent’s development as well as the prevalence of this topic in the book The Perks of Being a Wallflower. From social/emotional to neurological effects, we will discuss how exactly the effects can manifest themselves.
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The possibilities are endless when it comes to the effects of childhood trauma can have on an adolescent’s development, not only are the possibilities endless they can also be very complex. Emotional abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, physical abuse, witnessing domestic violence, etc., can all interfere with a growing child’s psychological, social and emotional development (Cook, Spinazzola, Ford, Lanktree, Blaustein, Cloitre, & Van der Kolk, 2005).
As kids transition into young adulthood, they are instantly greeted with an array of new developmental pressures they had yet to encounter in their childhood, that is assuming they experienced a fairly normal/average childhood. Identity formation being one of the greatest developmental demands they experience at that point in their lives. Some of the manners in which identity formation can manifest itself can be through building stable relations with peers, and forming an identity outside of their parents/caregivers (Goldbeck, & Jensen, 2017). Adding traumatic experiences to an already tumultuous time in a person's life, can really hinder these developmental milestones in an adolescent’s life.
Andrea Danese and Jessie R. Baldwin (2017) discuss in their research findings, how some studies that have involved children who have gone through a traumatic experience and demonstrate significant emotional problems showed higher average daily cortisol levels. That being said, elevated cortisol levels during a person’s early childhood development can have long-term effects on brain development and, thus, have long-term effects on brain function and behavior.
There are also risky behaviors that individuals are more likely to partake in if they have experienced some sort of abuse or traumatic event. Hannah Carliner, Erin Dunn, Katherine Keyes, & Silvia S. Martins (2015) researched the relationship between a person's traumatic experiences and likelihood to partake in the use of illicit drugs. One of their findings explaining how being sexually assaulted was linked to 2.83 higher odds for using marijuana. Not only are individuals predisposed to higher odds of using illicit substances, there is also the possibility of experiencing delusions, and blocking memories of the actual trauma and abuse which can make it difficult for the individual experiencing to work on and move past that trauma. Sukanta Saha, Daniel Varghese, Tim Slade, Louisa Degenhart, Katherine Mills, John McGrath, & James Scott (2011) explain in their research findings how persons who have been exposed to or experienced traumatic events were two times as likely to report delusions compared with those who did not have any trauma exposure.
Taking a look at a popular book in the media that could adequately discuss and represent the topic of childhood trauma and its effects on adolescent development I chose the book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. This book does a good job in addressing/talking about what it is like to be in the shoes of a young adult who has experienced traumatic events during their childhood and adolescence as well. The book also details the social/emotional, physical, and psychological effects that develop due to those traumatic events.
The book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower was written as a chain of letters from Charlie the main character in the book, to a “friend.” Each letter to the friend, essentially reading as a diary entry by Charlie. The “friend” Charlie writes to is never revealed in the book, the only things really discussed about the mysterious person is that Charlie trusts them enough to discuss the most private details of his life. All of the letters are from Charlie to which a response from the friend is never given. Early on in the book/letters, you realize as the reader that Charlie is writing letters as a way to cope with two very traumatic experiences he went through during his childhood. Those experiences being the suicide of his childhood best friend, Michael, and the death of his Aunt Helen.
Charlie is very blunt in his writing, he details his visits his with doctors and psychiatrists, and throughout his letters to his friend, it becomes clear that Charlie struggles emotionally as an adolescent and struggled even as a child. In the book you learn that in his middle school years, guidance counselors attempt to help Charlie through this tough period, but still he only resorted to screaming and crying. Charlie then enters high school and he expresses his feelings of loneliness and feeling like an outcast. He soon discovers his love for reading and writing to which his English teacher tried to encourage. Later on Charlie makes two older friends, they are seniors, Patrick and Sam. Patrick begins to expose Charlie to new things, such as his sexuality and dating, he begins to go on outings with them such as football games and parties. Charlie develops a crush on Sam but never really does anything about it because he is too shy. When Patrick invited Charlie to a party, he has a flashback to when his older brother had a party at their house and accidentally saw a girl get date raped, to which he did not realize at the time, he did not realize until the moment of that flashback.
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Patrick is the first person to call Charlie a “wallflower.” Charlie explains how a wallflower is a person who doesn’t dance at a party. The word seems to carry on throughout Charlie’s with more layers of significance, such as his feelings of awkwardness, and being shy overall. Charlie reads and re-reads The Catcher in the Rye; he seems to find comfort in reading that specific book. As the book progresses you can feel Charlie becoming more and more depressed, around the holidays to be more specific. Charlie seems to better mask his emotions during the school year because he spends most of his time with his friends where he feels accepted and understood. Charlie experiments with a variety of drugs, from marijuana to LSD, he seems to worry at times, and blames some of his issues to them but continues to use them.
Throughout the letters Charlie talks about the guilt he feels for his Aunt Helen’s death, he thinks it is his fault because the last thing he remembers before her passing in the car crash was that she was going to go look for his birthday present. He continuously states how he felt guilty because his Aunt Helen loved him too much. Charlie and Aunt Helen’s relationship isn’t quite clear at this point in the novel, because it’s not yet clear to Charlie himself. Although there have been no explicit details as to their relationship, you do begin to get a strange feeling it was not all okay because Charlie blames himself for Aunt Helen’s death because she was “too loving towards him”.
The letters then shift focus to Charlie's feelings about his friends and how they are about to graduate and go off to college. They remain friends throughout various ups and downs. Sam has a boyfriend who she breaks up with for cheating on her and Charlie tries to play along as if it didn't matter to him. The night before Sam leaves for college, Charlie goes to her house to help her pack and say goodbye. Charlie says that he realized that night he was in love with Sam, because all he wanted was for her to be happy when he had found out about her breakup with her then boyfriend. Same and Charlie begin to kiss and make out and Charlie seems to be enjoying it but when Sam starts to go further, Charlie pushes Sam away. He seems to be confused as to why reacted the way he did, and the first time, Charlie remembers Aunt Helen molesting him as a child. The next morning Sam leaves for college and Charlie drives himself home, he sits in front of the TV and stares at it even though it is not on, he is having a hard time processing all of his emotions. He realizes his brain had blocked out all of the memories of his Aunt Helen abusing him and it becomes clear to him why his psychiatrist wanted to know about his childhood so much. At this point he thanks the nameless friend for being such a good listener and says goodbye.
Two months pass and Charlie writes his friend another letter, his parents had found him naked in front of the TV that day, he was unresponsive, his dad even slaps him to get him to respond (he was never aggressive/abusive but he did it out of fear and frustration) and still he did not move or speak, they took him to a psychiatric ward, where he explains that he had been for the last two months. Charlie had realized along with his family that his Aunt Helen had been abusing him every time they watched TV together. Charlie expresses forgiving Aunt Helen and how happy/grateful he was to have his family around him, the book ends with his mother picking him up from the hospital and taking him to McDonalds like “old times”
All in all, the author of the book definitely did discuss the issue justice. As discussed, children who have experienced trauma go through various stages of coping, grieving and moving on/working through trauma. In the book how Charlie began to use illicit drugs shines light on the fact that indeed individuals who have endured some sort of trauma or are experiencing trauma are predisposed to higher chances of partaking in the substance use. Like Charlie, traumatic experiences can be blocked out of the child's brain as a way to survive emotionally and sometimes even resulting in delusions far from the truth, like Charlie blaming himself for his abusers death saying that she “loved him too much” and not recalling the abuse she put him through.
- Carliner, H., Dunn, E., Keyes, K., & Martins, S. (2015). Childhood trauma and initiation of drug use in adolescence. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 156, E37.
- Cook, A., Spinazzola, J., Ford, J., Lanktree, C., Blaustein, M., Cloitre, M., . . . Van der Kolk, B. (2005). Complex trauma in children and adolescents. Psychiatric Annals, 35(5), 390-398.
- Danese, A., & Baldwin, J. (2017). Hidden Wounds? Inflammatory Links Between Childhood Trauma and Psychopathology. Annual Review of Psychology, 68(1), 517-544.
- Goldbeck L., Jensen T.K. (2017) The Diagnostic Spectrum of Trauma-Related Disorders in Children and Adolescents.
- Saha, S., Varghese, D., Slade, T., Degenhardt, L., Mills, K., Mcgrath, J., & Scott, J. (2011). The association between trauma and delusional-like experiences. Psychiatry Research, 189(2), 259-264.
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