Negative experiences are a normal part of life. However, how each experience affects us differently, and some of the things we go through have a greater impact than others. Some experiences are so severe that they can cause trauma.
This is especially true for children, who are just beginning to learn more about the world around them. But exactly what is childhood trauma, and how does it affect children and even adults? We’ll do a deep dive here in this article.
What is Childhood Trauma?
The definition of childhood trauma is often used to describe various negative experiences that children go through.
However, it is important to differentiate what is traumatic from other negative experiences. Childhood trauma comes from experiencing, witnessing, or learning about dangerous, distressing, or life-threatening events throughout the childhood and adolescent years. It may happen to the child themselves, but they can also be impacted when these types of events hurt, injure, or otherwise negatively impact the people close to them.
When such things happen, children can get overwhelmed, upset, and feel helpless. These types of experiences can occur at any time and affect anyone; however, not all events will have a traumatic impact.
Types of Childhood Trauma
There is more than one type of childhood trauma. Examples of childhood trauma include the following types:
- Early childhood trauma
- Trauma from intimate partner violence
- Trauma as a result of disasters
- Trauma from physical, sexual, or emotional abuse
- Traumatic grief
- Refugee trauma
- Trauma from violence and/or terrorism
How Common is Childhood Trauma?
To understand how common childhood trauma is, it’s important to discuss adverse childhood experiences (ACE). Simply put, these are events that are potentially traumatic and occur in childhood. Some examples include experiencing abuse or neglect, witnessing violence in the home or community, or the death of a family member or loved one.
Unfortunately, ACEs are quite common. Just about 61% of American adults surveyed across several states reported that they experienced at least one type of ACE before turning age 18. Even more alarming is that nearly one out of six of those surveyed said they experienced four or more types of ACEs [*].
This makes childhood trauma more common than we think, possibly occurring in more than half the population. On a global scale, the data is even more alarming. According to WHO, nearly 75% of children between the ages of two and four experience child maltreatment, including physical punishment and psychological violence from their caregivers [*]. These figures do not reflect the other forms of trauma mentioned above, making it likely that this is a much bigger problem than anticipated.
Leading Causes of Childhood Trauma
Related to the different types of childhood trauma are the causes. Here are some of the leading sources that may result in childhood trauma:
- Emotional abuse or neglect
- Sexual abuse
- Physical abuse
- Dysfunction in the home, such as domestic violence, parent with a mental illness, or substance abuse
- Separation from a parent or guardian
- Violence, war, or terrorism
- Death of a loved one
What are the Signs of Childhood Trauma?
The signs of trauma may manifest differently in each child. Trauma may also show up differently depending on the child’s age. Here are some common signs to look out for if you think a child may be experiencing trauma:
- Feeling helpless or uncertain
- Fear of being separated from their parent or caregiver
- Chronic nightmares
- Returning to bedwetting
- Eating poorly and/or weight loss
- Developing new fears
- Significant changes in behavior
Elementary school children:
- Becoming anxious and fearful
- Becoming clingy with a parent or teacher
- Worrying about their safety or that of others
- Retelling the traumatic experience repeatedly
- Having difficulty sleeping
- Experiencing numbness
- Being easily startled
Middle and high school children:
- Feeling depressed or alone
- Feeling like they are going crazy
- Discussing the traumatic event in detail
- Taking too many risks
- Wanting to be different from everybody else
- Abusing alcohol and drugs
- Risky sexual behavior
The Impact of Childhood Trauma
The impact of childhood trauma can be seen and experienced across several aspects of life, including physical health, mental health, and relationships.
Impact on Physical Health
A traumatic childhood can affect a child's physical growth as trauma symptoms can manifest physically as a result of ACEs. Traumatic experiences can have long-term negative effects on health and well-being, increasing the risk of health concerns like heart disease, among others [*]. Trauma can also affect a child’s neurodevelopment and change their long-term response to stress [*].
Impact on Mental Health
Research has shown that there is a strong association between childhood trauma and developing mental illness [*]. This is especially true for children who have experienced bullying, emotional abuse, maltreatment, and parental loss. These events may result in psychological conditions such as depression or anxiety, bipolar, obsessive-compulsive, and substance abuse disorders.
Impact on Relationships
Many childhood traumas are the result of a break in trust with a child’s loved one, caregiver, or family member. These individuals may have contributed to the deterioration of trust, safety, and security that is so important in all life stages, most of all in childhood. People who have had childhood traumas may find maintaining old or creating new, healthy relationships a challenging endeavor.
How to Help a Child Who Experienced Trauma
Even after enduring a traumatic event, not all children will develop child trauma. With help, many kids may bounce back and thrive. You have a significant responsibility as a responsible adult and/or family member in their recovery process. Here are some things you can do to help a child who experienced trauma:
Maintain a sense of safety
Assure your child that they are safe with you. It may also help to let them know that your home or a space within it is a safe environment for them to be vulnerable.
Take the blame away from the child
It is important to emphasize to your child that he or she is not responsible for the traumatic event. Children often end up blaming themselves for situations outside of their control, which contributes to the feelings associated with trauma.
Each child moves at their own pace. Some may recover from traumatic experiences quickly while others will recover more slowly. Here, it is essential to reassure them that they do not have to feel guilty for taking their time or for having any feelings or thoughts associated with the trauma.
Seek the help of a professional
Sometimes, parents and guardians need a little support with helping their child through traumatic events. If needed, it is advisable to consult a mental health professional with experience in evidence-based trauma treatment. This can help you and your child move toward recovery.
Treatment Options for Childhood Trauma
Trauma can be especially difficult to overcome depending on the context in which it happened and who it affected. Fortunately, there are various treatment options available.
Cognitive Processing Therapy
Cognitive processing therapy is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that allows patients to modify and challenge the unhelpful beliefs they have as a result of a traumatic experience. The main goal of CPT is to help children decrease limiting thoughts and overcome barriers that prevent them from thriving in spite of the traumatic event.
Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) is another subset of CBT. This evidence-based technique focuses on a combination of psychoeducation and cognitive techniques that teach children and parents/caregivers cognitive coping skills to deal with stressors and process thoughts and emotions relating to a traumatic experience.
TF-CBT can help people who have gone through trauma manage difficult emotions in a healthier way. When working with children, it may help to use trauma worksheets to help illustrate ways on processing and managing emotions and thoughts related to their experiences.
To help kids recover from trauma, play therapy uses the healing potential of play. The target audience for play therapy is kids between the ages of three and twelve. In a play therapy session, the therapist watches the kids while they play. These professionals can then address trauma and develop the necessary coping mechanisms using the data they learn from how the child plays.
Narrative Exposure Therapy
Children who may not be candidates for TF-CBT and have signs of PTSD may benefit most from narrative exposure treatment (NET). This is a brief individual intervention that focuses on integrating the trauma into an autobiographical timeline. This therapy technique allows patients.
Frequently Asked Questions
Although we have covered plenty of information on childhood trauma, there are still many questions that are often asked about it.
What is the most common childhood trauma?
Neglect and mistreatment are the most common types of childhood trauma. Neglect occurs when a parent or guardian does not meet the child’s basic needs, such as food, housing, clothes, healthcare, and emotional connection.
Is childhood trauma a mental illness?
Childhood trauma is not classified as a mental illness. However, people who have gone through these highly stressful events also often develop a mental health disorder related to the trauma they experienced. Post-traumatic stress disorder is one very common example of this.
Does childhood trauma last forever?
Unfortunately, the short answer is “yes” as childhood trauma can last long-term. These adverse effects can stay with people as they grow well into adulthood. Some experience more severe consequences of trauma than others. The best thing to do is to process and manage one’s trauma with the help and support of a professional.
The Bottom Line
It is never too late to get help if traumatic childhood experiences continue to affect you or your child negatively. Whether it is for your teen or for your own experiences, seeking the proper treatment from a licensed professional is one step closer to healing.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fast Facts: Preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences. 6 April 2022.
- World Health Organization. Child maltreatment. 19 September 2022.
- Harvard School of Public Health. Childhood trauma raises lifetime risk for cardiovascular disease, early death. 2020.
- Lubit R, Rovine D, De Francisci L, et al. Impact of trauma on children. March 2003.
- McKay M, Cannon M, Chambers D, et al. Childhood trauma and adult mental disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal cohort studies. 18 January 2021.