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Key Takeaways:

  • Childhood trauma can manifest in various forms, such as abuse and neglect.
  • Dealing with childhood trauma is not a linear process.
  • Steps that adults may take to heal include recognizing trauma symptoms, practicing acceptance and self-compassion, and reaching out for support.

There is a prevailing opinion that children are resilient and that their emotional experiences don't have lasting effects. In reality, unresolved trauma or experiences that haven’t been adequately processed can linger. If you want to know how to heal from childhood trauma, first, you need to understand its impact on your life.

According to SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), a significant number of children undergo at least one traumatic event before they turn 16 [*]. Moreover, their trauma arises from different sources.

Overcoming childhood trauma takes time. It requires recognizing its symptoms, a commitment on your part to do the work, and professional support. Read this article to learn more.

Types of Childhood Trauma

Some common types of traumatic experiences that kids and teens can be exposed to include [*]:

  • Physical abuse - This happens when a parent or caregiver does something that injures the child physically, which results in bruises, red marks, cuts, muscle sprains, and broken bones.
  • Sexual abuse - Considered a severe type of trauma, this involves engaging in sexual activities with the child. Any form of contact is considered sexual abuse, such as touching, exposing them to materials or sexual acts, and penetration.
  • Traumatic grief - Here, the child struggles with the loss of their loved one. They may be triggered by people and places that remind them of the death, and even occasions related to the deceased loved one.
  • Bullying - The child may have been ridiculed, humiliated, or excluded from a group. There are also cases in which bullying involves physical abuse [*].
  • Community violence - Violence that happens in public spaces, such as gang fights and shootings in schools and within communities, can affect a child psychologically. This is true even when the child isn’t the direct victim.
  • Complex trauma - This type of trauma usually occurs early in a child’s life. More often than not, the child is exposed to multiple events involving neglect, abuse, or violence in the home. It is interpersonal, meaning that it is inflicted by the child’s own caregiver or family member.
  • Natural disasters - Earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, and wildfires can threaten a child’s sense of safety. A child’s response to a natural disaster may depend on how severe the event is and whether they’ve lost their possessions or a loved one.
  • Medical trauma - This type of trauma refers to psychological and physiological reactions children have in response to medical procedures. The invasiveness of the procedure and the level of pain involved can affect the child’s experience.
  • Sex trafficking - Another severe form of childhood trauma, sex trafficking means that a child is exploited and forced into engaging in sexual activities against their will.
  • Race-based trauma - Children who experience racism themselves or witness it can be negatively affected. They may feel shame, fear, and experience some symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Symptoms of Childhood Trauma in Adults

Childhood trauma affects adults in different ways depending on the trauma that occurred. They may show a range of symptoms that might interfere with their ability to function and form healthy relationships.

Note that childhood trauma can also be repressed. The mind can use repression as a defense mechanism to protect the individual from the impact of trauma.

Below, we list the emotional, behavioral, cognitive, physical, and social symptoms brought about by childhood trauma.

Emotional Symptoms

  • Feelings of anger
  • Emotional detachment
  • Anxiety
  • Hopelessness
  • Panic attacks

Behavioral Symptoms

  • Repetitive behaviors as a way of coping
  • Perfectionistic tendencies
  • Substance abuse
  • Disordered eating
  • Impulsiveness and other risky behaviors
  • Control issues

Cognitive Symptoms

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Intrusive thoughts, memories, and flashbacks
  • Negative beliefs or cognitive distortions
  • Trouble retaining new information (memory issues)
  • Hypervigilance or constantly scanning the environment

Physical Symptoms

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Nightmares and other disrupted sleep patterns
  • Headaches, muscle tension, and other chronic pain conditions
  • Low energy levels
  • Fatigue
  • Increased likelihood of infections
  • Weight fluctuations

Social Symptoms

  • Trust issues
  • Social withdrawal
  • Difficulty saying no or asserting one’s needs
  • Increased conflict in relationships
  • Fear of rejection or negative evaluation from others

Effects of Childhood Trauma

Adults who’ve experienced childhood trauma may suffer from its consequences in different areas of their lives. For example, one study involving 216 adults with different degrees of childhood trauma found that childhood neglect may lead to alterations in the brain's function and mental health [*].

Recovering from childhood trauma requires understanding its effects. Knowing the difficulties you might face as an adult can offer validation while encouraging you to explore coping strategies.

You can start by reading about its impact on your health, emotions, and relationships below.

Physical Health

Adults who have a history of childhood trauma are at an increased risk of chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, liver disease, and cancer [*]. This is because traumatic experiences trigger the body’s stress response, which then leads to inflammation and the disruption of the immune system.

Mental Health

Childhood trauma, such as abuse early in life, can cause anxiety in various forms. Anxiety can range from persistent concerns about different aspects of life to panic attacks. PTSD is also a consequence of childhood trauma. A study found that a combination of childhood abuse and PTSD symptoms may impact a person’s ability to perform tasks accurately [*].

Emotional Regulation

Emotional regulation is a person’s ability to control their emotional expressions and responses when faced with challenges in life.

Unfortunately, children who’ve experienced a lack of emotional validation (or the acknowledgment of one’s emotional experiences as valid) may be prone to dysregulation. This results in the adult becoming more likely to have intense emotional outbursts, mixed mood states, impulsive behavior, and difficulty calming down [*].

Relationships

It’s difficult to build and maintain healthy adult relationships with others if you have trust issues, get easily irritated or annoyed, and struggle with intimacy [*]. Relationships indeed require effort and communication to thrive, and childhood trauma can affect them.

5 Steps to Help Overcome Childhood Trauma

The good news is that getting over childhood trauma is possible. While it can have lasting effects on your life or someone you care about (such as a grown-up child, teen, or family member), it doesn’t have to define your future.

If you are dealing with the consequences of childhood trauma, here are strategies that may help with healing:

1. Recognize and accept childhood trauma

Accepting that the trauma occurred and that it has had a lasting impact allows the victim to move forward.

With acknowledgment, you can begin to treat yourself with kindness and patience. As you feel seen and heard, feelings of shame decrease. Moreover, you’ll feel you have more space to process your emotions in healthy ways.

2. Practice self-compassion

Self-compassion means being kind and supportive towards yourself, especially when you’re struggling. In essence, you treat yourself with the same care and understanding you would give to a friend in need.

Study shows that female survivors of childhood maltreatment were more likely to report fear of self-compassion, which is linked to increased PTSD symptoms [*]. If you struggle with this area, start small. Activities that soothe and comfort you can be a good starting point. Examples are taking a warm bubble bath and cuddling with your pet.

3. Regulate your emotions

Emotional regulation can be practiced by first identifying your personal trauma triggers. These are thoughts, situations, or things that cause intense emotions to arise.

Once you feel these emotions, engage in grounding techniques. Examples are diaphragmatic breathing, visualization (imagining a calm place), and progressive muscle relaxation.

4. Process traumatic memories

Processing trauma involves confronting and trying to understand one’s traumatic experiences within a safe environment.

Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), for instance, is a 12-session therapy technique that helps clients change their negative beliefs caused by their childhood trauma [*].

Another approach is Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT), which focuses on children ages 3-18 years who have some memory of their trauma. Their non-offending caregivers will also be involved in this therapy. Here, the child and their caregiver receive education (psychoeducation) and learn stress management and relaxation tips.

5. Consider seeking support

Unresolved or repressed trauma from childhood can benefit from professional help. It’s especially needed in situations where an adult experiences frequent panic attacks and other PTSD symptoms that interfere with their ability to function.

Therapists or counselors can be sources of support, especially since they’re trained to address trauma. They will teach you skills to manage your emotions and help you develop a sense of safety.

The Bottom Line

Accepting past experiences, honoring them, and exploring resources — and most importantly, getting support from the right people — are all part of dealing with childhood trauma healthily.

The recovery process can be difficult, so it’s important to stay patient. Don’t rush the process. Celebrate each small victory, whether it’s practicing self-care at home or attending a therapy session.

Looking for more trauma resources? See our Trauma Worksheets for tips, techniques, and exercises that help with healing.

References:

  1. Understanding Child Trauma. (2023, March 17). What Is Childhood Trauma? | SAMHSA. https://www.samhsa.gov/child-trauma/understanding-child-trauma
  2. O. (2018, May 25). Trauma Types. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/trauma-types
  3. Švecová, J., Fürstová, J., Kaščáková, N., Hašto, J., & Tavel, P. (2023, August 11). The effect of childhood trauma and resilience on psychopathology in adulthood: Does bullying moderate the associations? BMC Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40359-023-01270-8
  4. Cai, J., Li, J., Liu, D., Gao, S., Zhao, Y., Zhang, J., & Liu, Q. (2023). Long-term effects of childhood trauma subtypes on adult brain function. Brain and behavior, 13(5), e2981. https://doi.org/10.1002/brb3.2981
  5. Zarse, E. M., Neff, M. R., Yoder, R., Hulvershorn, L. A., Chambers, J. E., & Chambers, R. A. (2019). The adverse childhood experiences questionnaire: Two decades of research on childhood trauma as a primary cause of adult mental illness, addiction, and medical diseases. Cogent Medicine, 6(1), 1581447. https://doi.org/10.1080/2331205x.2019.1581447
  6. Powers, A., Etkin, A., Gyurak, A., Bradley, B., & Jovanovic, T. (2015). Associations Between Childhood Abuse, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, and Implicit Emotion Regulation Deficits: Evidence From a Low-Income, Inner-City Population. Psychiatry, 78(3), 251–264. https://doi.org/10.1080/00332747.2015.1069656
  7. Zaorska, J., Kopera, M., Trucco, E. M., Suszek, H., Kobyliński, P., & Jakubczyk, A. (2020). Childhood Trauma, Emotion Regulation, and Pain in Individuals With Alcohol Use Disorder. Frontiers in psychiatry, 11, 554150. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2020.554150
  8. Huh, H. J., Kim, S. Y., Yu, J. J., & Chae, J. H. (2014). Childhood trauma and adult interpersonal relationship problems in patients with depression and anxiety disorders. Annals of general psychiatry, 13, 26. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12991-014-0026-y
  9. Boykin DM, Himmerich SJ, Pinciotti CM, Miller LM, Miron LR, Orcutt HK. Barriers to self-compassion for female survivors of childhood maltreatment: The roles of fear of self-compassion and psychological inflexibility. Child Abuse Negl. 2018 Feb;76:216-224. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2017.11.003. Epub 2017 Nov 13. PMID: 29144981.
  10. VA.gov | Veterans Affairs. (n.d.). https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand_tx/cognitive_processing.asp

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