The term ‘Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder’ was introduced by Judith Lewis Herman in Trauma and Recovery. Her earlier book Father-Daughter Incest (1981) was the first ever published book on a subject that had been taboo until the ‘second-wave feminism’ of the 1970s (Wikipedia: ‘Child Sexual Abuse’). Herman identified that prolonged trauma, especially of a kind that robbed victims of their freedom over an extended period of time, gave rise to a more complex form of post-traumatic stress disorder. And a further sub-set of trauma victims, children, exhibited an additional range of symptoms that related to developmental damage to brain systems (attachment system, emotional regulation system, socialisation system, self-identity and belief systems).
However, the diagnostic term ‘complex posttraumatic stress disorder’ (C-PTSD) is not accepted by the DSM V (or any previous version of the DSM), and so requires some background discussion. I recommend the general discussion offered by Wikipedia :
Adult-acquired PTSD that has developed due to prolonged capture, torture and brutality is more complex than straight PTSD, so the description of “complex-PTSD” is not unreasonable. But specialists in the area of PTSD such as Bessel van der Kolk have suggested that a different diagnostic term be given to the survivors of childhood trauma and abuse, that it might be better named as “Developmental Trauma Disorder”, due to a very different set of symptoms, specific to childhood trauma, that do not appear in adult-acquired PTSD or adult-acquired Complex PTSD. These different set of symptoms are related to the adverse effects on the development of the child’s brain and the attachment system. I agree with this thinking, but as the term DTD has not yet taken off in a systematic way, I will continue to call it C-PTSD.
The Focus of this Website : C-PTSD caused by deliberate human intervention during childhood
In this website, I focus on adult experience of complex posttraumatic stress disorder resulting from childhood abuse. Clearly many children around the world experience trauma due to external circumstances beyond the control of their caregivers. Their trauma is as real as that of abused children, and such children will still need help, counselling and guidance to be able to recover from their experiences. But the therapy they receive is more likely to be organised and supported by their parents or family, and is more likely to be provided while they are still young.
In the case of people who were abused as children, it is more likely that they will seek therapeutic help in adulthood, since by the very nature of their dysfunctional families, their plight frequently goes unnoticed. Some children are rescued by social services and provided with counselling and/or group programs for adolescents. The presenting issues and psychological interventions for adolescents are somewhat different from those of adults presenting for therapy. This website specialises in the therapy issues for adults who were abused in childhood.
Victimization is experienced as a form of captivity, giving rise to Stockholm Syndrome (i.e., identifying with and/or loving the abuser), psychological fragmentation, loss of a sense of safety, trust and self-worth, and loss of a coherent sense of self. Such survivors tend to be easily revictimized. In the long-term, victims of childhood abuse suffer deep alterations in their psychological make-up. These will usually include:
- Difficulties regulating emotions, including symptoms such as persistent sadness, suicidal thoughts, explosive anger, or covert anger
- Variations in consciousness, such as forgetting traumatic events, reliving traumatic events, or having episodes of dissociation (during which one feels detached from one’s mental processes or body)
- Changes in self-perception, such as a sense of helplessness, shame, guilt, stigma, and a sense of being completely different from other human beings
- Varied changes in the perception of the perpetrator, such as attributing total power to the perpetrator or becoming preoccupied with the relationship to the perpetrator, including a preoccupation with revenge
- Alterations in relations with others, including isolation, distrust, or a repeated search for a rescuer
- Loss of, or changes in, one’s system of meanings, which may include a loss of sustaining faith or a sense of hopelessness and despair.
More on Complex PTSD
The Hidden Experience of Abuse
Further Resources and Readings (Childhood Trauma)