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Reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Childhood is supposed to be a time of learning, discovery and positive growth. However, many people undergo traumatic experiences during childhood, including trauma that can continue to affect you as you enter into adulthood.
If you’re a victim of childhood trauma, it’s critical to understand that you’re not alone. In data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association (SAMHSA), more than two-thirds of children report going through at least one traumatic event by age 16.
Events that occur early in your life can have a profound impact on your thoughts and emotions in the future. If you’ve experienced childhood trauma, there’s a real possibility that it may cause you to experience real, noticeable symptoms years or decades later.
The good news is that childhood trauma doesn’t need to be something that affects your mental wellbeing forever. In fact, with the right approach, it’s almost always possible to heal from early life trauma and prevent it from having a lasting negative impact on your life.
Below, we’ll explain what trauma is, as well as the specific events and behaviors that often cause or contribute to childhood trauma.
We’ll also discuss the signs of repressed childhood trauma in adults that you may notice if you suffered through one or several traumatic events as a child or teen.
Finally, we’ll explain what you can do to get help, from self-care techniques to using mental health services to access professional care.
Trauma is our emotional response to a distressing, disturbing or overwhelming event. There are many types of trauma, from interpersonal trauma — a form of trauma that occurs between one or more individuals — to group traumas that can occur to an entire population.
Common causes of trauma in childhood include:
Bullying or violence at school. For many children, trauma can develop at school through bullying, violence or physical abuse. These early life experiences can have a lasting impact on your wellbeing, even as a teen and adult.
Domestic violence. As a child, witnessing or experiencing domestic violence can have a serious negative impact on your wellbeing. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, more than 10 million people are abused by a partner annually.
Group traumas, like experiencing a natural disaster or terrorism. Traumas that you experience as part of a larger group can have impacts later. For example, witnessing a terrorist attack, such as a shooting, or living through a natural disaster, such as a hurricane or earthquake, can cause trauma that may continue to affect you as an adult.
Physical or sexual abuse. Being physically or sexually abused as a child can cause lasting trauma into your adult life.According to the CDC, about one in four girls and one in 13 boys in the US experience childhood sexual abuse.
Childhood neglect. Emotional neglect and physical neglect can seriously affect your wellbeing well into adulthood.Data from the CDC suggests that at least one in seven children experienced child abuse or neglect in the past year.
A serious accident. Living through a serious car crash, home accident or other accident that causes injuries or mental distress can be a major traumatic event that can cause chronic stress and/or trauma.
Severe disease. Developing a severe or life-threatening disease as a child or adolescent, including a mental illness or chronic illness, could cause trauma that continues to affect you during adulthood.
The death of a parent, close friend or other loved one. Losing a parent, sibling, other family member or close friend as a child or teenager can continue to have traumatic effects throughout your life.
Childhood adversity due to being in a military family. Many military families suffer additional forms of stress, often related to deployment, parental injury or the death of a parent during war. These may contribute to unresolved childhood trauma.
Being a refugee or victim of war. Childhood trauma can also develop as the result of living in a war or conflict zone, needing to flee your home or seeking asylum in a foreign country.
Unresolved trauma, including lingering negative memories from childhood trauma exposures, can have a serious impact on your personal wellbeing as an adult.
In addition to raising your risk of developing mental disorders as an adult, trauma may affect many aspects of your physical health. In fact, the physical effects of trauma are so severe that researchers have found a link between childhood trauma in women and heart disease.
Because of its impact on your wellbeing, trauma from childhood can cause signs and symptoms that you may notice as part of your daily life.
Some of these symptoms may be subtle and difficult to notice at first, while others may be more obvious and identifiable, both to yourself and to others. You may notice symptoms occurring on a frequent basis or coming and going during certain moments or periods of your life.
Below, we’ve listed several common symptoms of childhood trauma that may either develop or continue to occur during adulthood.
Many people who survive trauma, whether as a child, an adolescent or during adulthood, develop a persistent sense of sadness and difficulty coping with their feelings.
Referred to as complicated grief, this is a form of grief that continues to occur at a high level of intensity, often long after the initial incident.
In a study involving survivors of the 2011 Norway domestic terrorist attacks, researchers found that participants who lost a close friend or family member often displayed signs of complicated grief several years after the event.
The researchers noted that these issues might develop in people exposed to traumatic events that involve the loss of a close relation or friend.
Some forms of childhood trauma, such as trauma caused by neglect or abuse, may affect your ability to form or maintain relationships as an adult.
In a study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry in 2019, experts found that otherwise healthy adults who were survivors of childhood trauma were significantly more likely to have an insecure attachment style.
An insecure attachment style is a type of relational pattern that can cause a person to feel more anxious about being rejected socially.
It’s also associated with elevated anxiety, a higher risk of perceiving negative emotions in other people and greater variability in positive emotions.
These emotional effects of childhood trauma may make it more difficult for you to form romantic relationships, friendships and other relationships as an adult. Parents with PTSD may struggle with how they form relationships with their children, for example.
You may find that you feel more hesitant to trust other people and become emotionally close to them, or you might feel anxious about being rejected — common issues that can make developing meaningful relationships more difficult.
Self-destructive behaviors, meaning behaviors that are harmful to you as a person, are common in people affected by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Research suggests that many people with self-destructive habits and behaviors have previously experienced trauma or disrupted parental care as children.
Common self-destructive behaviors include:
Harming yourself deliberately, such as cutting yourself
Using illicit drugs or misusing prescription medication
Risky sexual behaviors, such as unprotected sex
Compulsive or excessive gambling
Excessively spending money
Drinking alcohol excessively
In certain cases, self-destructive thoughts could include thoughts of suicide. If you feel suicidal, it’s important to get help by contacting a crisis or mental health hotline, reaching out to a family member or close friend or talking to a mental health professional.
Not all self-destructive habits are obvious. Sometimes, simple things such as feeling as if you’re not good enough for someone else and need to change yourself, putting yourself down or being aggressive to other people for no reason could be signs that you’re being self-destructive.
No one is flawless, and it’s not abnormal to occasionally engage in habits or behaviors that may have a negative effect on your life. However, when self-destructive thoughts become overly frequent, severe or start to have a clear negative impact on your wellbeing, they could be a sign that you’re acting in response to trauma from earlier in your life.
Dealing with emotional abuse, childhood maltreatment or other adverse childhood experiences is associated with an increased risk of depressive disorders as an adult.
This means that you may be more likely to develop symptoms of depression if you faced a form of trauma as a child.
In fact, research shows a link between a history of childhood trauma and chronic depression — a long-lasting, persistent form of depression that can have a significant impact on your mental and physical health — in adulthood.
Common signs and symptoms of depression in women include:
A persistent anxious, sad and negative mood
Feeling hopeless, pessimistic, worthless or as if you can’t be helped
Chronic fatigue and a feeling of being physically slower than normal
Changes in appetite, such as losing your appetite or feeling hungrier than normal
Becoming irritable, frustrated or restless easily
Losing interest in your hobbies and passions
Difficulty remembering things or focusing
Finding it challenging to make decisions
Struggling to fall asleep or waking during the nighttime
Developing unexplained cramps, aches, pains or headaches
Experiencing digestive health issues
Not all symptoms of depression are severe. Some people affected by early life trauma develop mild depression — a condition that isn’t as severe or obvious as major depressive disorder, but can still have a serious negative impact on your wellbeing and quality of life.
If you experience several of these symptoms frequently, especially for a period of two weeks or longer, it’s important to seek professional help.
Anxiety disorders can cause a variety of symptoms, including difficulty with excessive worry and emotional regulation, irritability, difficulty concentrating, sleep problems, phobias (fears of certain situations and/or objects) and even panic attacks.
Our guide to signs of declining mental health lists changes in your thinking and behavior to look out for if you’re concerned about depression or anxiety.
Childhood trauma can have a serious negative impact on your mental and physical health as an adult. However, the good news is that the effects of trauma are almost always treatable with the right approach.
If you’ve noticed mental or physical symptoms or signs of childhood trauma in your adult life and would like to take action, consider the options below.
If you think you may have depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder or another mental health disorder as a result of traumatic experiences in childhood, it’s important to talk to a psychiatrist and get professional help.
A psychiatrist can talk with you about your symptoms and, if appropriate, formally diagnose you with a mental illness and prescribe medication.
Many people with depression, anxiety disorders and other mental health issues benefit from the use of antidepressants and other prescription medications, often in combination with therapy.
Our online psychiatry service allows you to go through a mental health consultation online and access medication or other treatments to help you manage your symptoms and improve your quality of life.
Many signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression get better with psychotherapy, or talk therapy.
If you’re currently having difficulty coping, struggling with self-destructive behaviors or experiencing clear symptoms of a mental health disorder, talking to a therapist can help you to learn strategies to identify and change these harmful behaviors and feelings.
Several forms of therapy are used to help people overcome childhood trauma and its effects on adult life, including cognitive restructuring. This form of therapy involves making sense of the repressed childhood memories that can affect your thoughts and feelings.
We offer therapy online as part of our range of mental health services, allowing you to connect with a professional counselor and get therapy whenever you need it, all without having to leave your home.
Taking good care of yourself by living a healthy, balanced life can potentially make dealing with the symptoms of childhood trauma an easier process.
While healthy habits and self-care aren't a replacement for professional mental health care, the right habits can complement medication and therapy to help you deal with adverse experiences from your childhood and overcome difficult life events as an adult.
Our list of self-care tips for women shares techniques that you can use to prioritize your mental and physical wellbeing, from establishing a consistent sleep schedule to eating a balanced diet, writing a journal and keeping yourself physically active.
Exposure to trauma during childhood doesn’t just affect you then — it can have a lasting impact that may stay with you for decades.
If you’re an adult survivor of childhood abuse, neglect or any type of traumatic experience, you may notice symptoms such as persistent sadness, difficulty forming romantic relationships and self-destructive behaviors.
You may also have a higher risk of developing mental health issues such as clinical depression, anxiety or a substance use disorder.
It’s important to seek help for these issues, especially when they prevent you from living a high-quality, fulfilling life.
You can get help by reaching out to a loved one or trusted friend, talking with your primary care provider or using our online mental health services.
You can also learn more about your options in our detailed guide to seeking expert help for your mental health.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.
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