Did Religious Trauma Impact Your Childhood?
Not every childhood story of Religious Trauma (RT) is the same. Yet, several consistent themes occur in the lives of children who grow up in religious communities. To illustrate this, I will begin with the story of three children. Every story is different.
Child #1 came from a family that believed meeting their children's needs were important and the parent’s job was to help their children to develop agency (ability to make choices). Any necessary correction was made with love and relational ruptures were repaired. Faith was important and they viewed the church as a support group for their family.
Child #2 came from a home where the parents depended on the teachings of prominent religious leaders to understand how to raise their children. Church leaders instructed them not to give in to children’s demands, require immediate obedience, and use both isolation and spanking as a means to control behaviors. Along with following these teachings, the parents loved and wanted the best for their children—salvation in particular.
Child #3 was born into a family that was deeply involved in an authoritarian cult-like church (will be discussed in a future blog). How the parents interacted with their children was dictated by the church leader—as was every element of their lives. Children had very few interactions outside of the church and were required to submit to all leaders and other adults. The fear of punishment, hell, or damnation permeated the child’s life. Many types of abuse were common and well concealed.
Elements of these stories can blend into each other in real life. The second two lead to RT for two basic reasons—the harm done to the child’s attachment relationships and the loss of agency (ability to make independent decisions). The third moves into the level of Complex Religious Trauma (CRT) because of outright abuse that permeates the daily life of the child. There is never a time or availability of a relationship that would allow the child’s nervous system to relax or heal. In this case, the grown child will often clearly meet the diagnosis of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) which results from long-term exposure to traumatic stress or repeated traumatic events. Most often, the religious underpinnings are neither recognized nor understood.
In the case of Developmental Religious Trauma (DRT)*, the harm done is not nearly as obvious. It is easy to say, “My parents were well-meaning” and not recognize the impact the parenting practices had on your young life. If you experienced this, you probably suffer from some—if not all—of the following:
Feelings of not being loved (or not worthy of being loved).
Fear of doing something wrong that will result in a loss of love.
Mistrust of your own feelings/needs.
Believing that meeting others' needs is most important.
Struggling to make or trust your choices.
Why is this true?
Most of the prominent parenting advice promoted by religious leaders and churches lacked any understanding of how the child develops into a healthy human being. Many practices such as having babies cry it out impacted children’s attachment relationships and kept parents from being present during their child’s distress. When the child stopped crying it was due to exhaustion and a realization that no one was coming. Parents missed the opportunity to soothe or co-regulate—the very way children learn healthy self-regulation.
Note: Recognizing the unhealthy patterns or pain from the ways we were parented is essential to healing. Pointing this out to parents may or may not be necessary--or go well especially if it involved outright abuse. Just know that doesn’t make you dishonoring or disrespectful to speak your truth. I highly respect those in my generation who are able to have conversations with their adult children and accept that following these practices did not provide the attuned/nurturing care that their children needed.
Next week, we will discuss religious teachings that impacted us as children. For now, one of the most important parts of healing is realizing that we can learn self-regulation skills that we missed and develop the agency to make choices that are best for us. Trauma is anything that overwhelms our nervous system, and sadly, this happens to children far too often. Whether the harm was intentional or unintentional is far less important than understanding and healing the impact.
*Credit to my friend, Dr. Gillian Harvey, for her work on this topic which she termed Developmental Religious Trauma. (Harvey, G. (2022). Both sides of the coin: Counsellors’ stories of the influence of a fundamentalist religious upbringing on mental health and wellbeing in adulthood [Doctoral thesis, Middlesex University]. Middlesex University Repository.