Howard Stern talks childhood trauma, and a trauma psychiatrist talks about its lasting effects

With the awakening in society of the importance of mental health, combined with advances in neuroscience and psychiatry, much needed attention to trauma and childhood trauma is slowly forming.

In a recent interview with Anderson Cooper and in his latest book published May 14, Howard Stern discussed childhood adversity and trauma. The two men also discussed their exposure to their parents’ stress and how their reactions as children formed their adult behavior.

As a trauma psychiatrist, I am glad that men with such celebrity are willing to talk about their experiences, because it can help bring awareness to the public and reduce stigma.

Childhood: Learning about the world and the self

A child’s brain is a sponge for learning about how the world works and who they themselves are. We humans have an evolutionary advantage in having the ability to trust the older and learn from them about the world. That leads to cumulative knowledge and protection against adversity, about which only the experienced know. A child absorbs the patterns of perceiving the world, relating to others and to the self by learning from adults.

But when the initial environment is unusually tough and unfriendly, then a child’s perception of the world may form around violence, fear, lack of safety and sadness. Brains of adults who experience childhood adversity, or even poverty, are more prone to detecting danger, at the cost of ignoring the positive or neutral experiences.

Some who experience childhood adversity have to mature faster and become caretakers or provide emotional support for siblings or parents at an age they themselves need to be taken care of. They may end up carrying those patterns of relating to others throughout their adult life.

The child of trauma may also perceive himself or herself as unworthy of love, guilty or bad. The brain of an unknowing child may think: If they do this to me, there should be something wrong with me, I deserve it.

The little world people experience as children forms the way we perceive the real big world, its people and the people we are as adults. This will then form the way the world reacts to us based on our actions.

A world filled with trauma

An unidentified young person participating in therapy at a center for refugees in Detroit. David Dalton/Wayne State University, CC BY-SA
Childhood trauma is more common than one would think: Up to two-thirds of children experience at least one traumatic event. These include serious medical illness or injury, firsthand experience of violence or sexual abuse or witnessing them, neglect, bullying and the newest addition to the list: mass shootings.

Unfortunately, when it comes to domestic violence and sexual abuse, it is often chronic, repetitive exposure, which can be even more detrimental to the child’s mental and physical health and behavior.

Ongoing civil wars and refugee crises also expose millions of children to extremely high levels of trauma, which is often ignored.