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Key Takeaways:

  • Adverse childhood experiences can cause trauma to develop.
  • The long-term effects of trauma can be physical, psychological, behavioral, and societal.
  • Healing from the long-term effects of childhood trauma is possible.

More people experience trauma than we realize. We may recognize that, in some ways, experiencing trauma shapes a person’s life significantly. However, we might not be aware of the long-term effects of childhood trauma and how they may alter one’s way of living forever.

For some people, the adverse effects of childhood trauma are more severe than others. Understanding the long-term effects of this type of trauma is key to recovery and being able to live life the way you want to, without trauma looming over you.

What is Childhood Trauma?

Exactly what is childhood trauma? Childhood trauma is the result of experiencing or witnessing any distressing or life-threatening events. These experiences may happen to the child themselves or someone close to them. While negative experiences may result in trauma, not all negative events will create a traumatic effect.

4 Main Categories of ACEs

Adverse childhood experiences are events that can develop into traumatic experiences in the early years of one’s life [*]. There are four main categories that all ACEs fall under:

Abuse - This may include physical, emotional, verbal, and sexual abuse.

Neglect - Neglect can be done either physically or emotionally.

Challenges in the home - Children might experience challenges at home, including:

  • Poverty or homelessness
  • Parental conflict, divorce, separation, death, or abandonment
  • Witnessing physical or emotional abuse
  • Being around substance abuse or mental illness in the family
  • Serious accidents or illnesses involving loved ones
  • Death of a loved one or pet

Community incidents - Things that happen in the community that may negatively impact a child include community violence, school violence, social rejection, natural disasters, and terrorism.

Such events are difficult for adults to cope with, making them even more challenging for children to process. Both adverse childhood experiences and the lifelong consequences of trauma are related and can lead to many negative effects, such as chronic health issues, mental health struggles, or even substance abuse [*].

What are the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Trauma?

Childhood trauma can significantly affect many aspects of one’s well-being. Here are some of the long-term effects:

Physical

When one goes through a traumatic event, the body responds with a flurry of activity. There is a sudden increase in the amount of stress hormones in the bloodstream, prompting an individual to go into fight-or-flight mode even without the presence of a threat. This can wreak havoc on your physical health and lead to conditions such as:

  • Heart problems
  • Diabetes
  • Malnutrition
  • Vision problems
  • Arthritis
  • Back problems
  • High blood pressure
  • Brain damage

Psychological

ACEs such as child abuse and neglect can cause psychological problems. Something as severe as maltreatment can cause children to feel fear, distrust, and isolation. All of these may develop into lifelong psychological problems that may appear as low self-esteem, depression, educational struggles, or difficulties with relationships. Problems such as the following may persist into adulthood:

  • Poor emotional and mental health
  • Low executive functioning and cognitive skills
  • Social difficulties and issues with attachment
  • Post-traumatic stress

Adults who have signs of repressed childhood trauma may exhibit some other psychological issues, such as difficulty regulating emotions and black-and-white thinking.

Behavioral

Behavioral difficulties often arise as a result of ACEs. The following are just a few examples of such behaviors:

  • Risky and unhealthy sexual practices
  • Juvenile delinquency that leads to adult criminality
  • Continuation of maltreatment toward others

You may also notice signs of childhood trauma in adults through behaviors such as hypervigilance and substance abuse.

Societal

The impact of trauma does not end with the children who experience maltreatment in one form or another. Society also pays a price for child abuse and neglect. This may be a direct cost (e.g., foster care payments and hospitalizations) or an indirect one (e.g., lost productivity at school or juvenile and criminal justice systems costs).

There are also tangible and intangible costs as outlined below:

  • Healthcare
  • Child welfare
  • Juvenile justice
  • Pain
  • Suffering
  • Grief

Does Everyone Experience Long-Term Consequences of Childhood Trauma?

The consequences of childhood trauma are not experienced by every single individual who encounters negative experiences. Depending on the circumstance, some people may be able to cope with a traumatic experience more effectively than others. It is important to remember that what is traumatic for one person may not be to another; it differs per individual. Therefore, how one heals from childhood trauma will also vary, including experiencing (or not experiencing) its long-term effects.

Can Childhood Trauma Cause Permanent Damage?

Childhood trauma can cause permanent damage. It does not miraculously go away once an individual reaches adulthood. In fact, studies have shown that adults who have experienced childhood trauma have low self-esteem, experience depression and anxiety, and are more prone to substance abuse [*].

Healing from the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Trauma

Healing from the long-term effects of childhood trauma is a challenging process that takes plenty of time and support. Here are some things you can do to aid your healing journey:

Recognize the trauma. Acknowledging that a certain childhood experience caused the trauma is the first step in accepting how it affected you. This can help you with your current difficulties and pave the way to healing. Using guided materials such as trauma worksheets can help you navigate your trauma safely and more easily. These can be accomplished with the help of your therapist.

Be patient with yourself. Inflicting guilt and harsh criticism on the self is a common reaction from those who have been traumatized. Instead of asking defeating questions such as “what’s wrong with me?” or “why am I like this?” remember that the traumatic event was not your fault. Imagine how you would treat a friend in the same situation; apply that same kindness to yourself.

Reach out for help. It’s tempting to isolate yourself and push everybody away when you’re healing from trauma. However, emotional support and understanding are essential to your recovery. If you give people a chance, then they can become a great support system for you. This includes qualified mental health professionals.

The Bottom Line

The impact of childhood trauma is experienced and handled differently by each individual. Developing coping mechanisms and overcoming early trauma can reduce the likelihood of negative long-term effects. Remember, it is never too late to seek out the help of a licensed mental health professional to help you with your healing journey.

References:

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fast Facts: Preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences. 6 April 2022.
  2. He J, Yan X, Wang R, et al. Does Childhood Adversity Lead to Drug Addiction in Adulthood? A Study of Serial Mediators Based on Resilience and Depression. 18 April 2022.
  3. Downey C & Crummy A. The impact of childhood trauma on children's wellbeing and adult behavior. February 2022.