Childhood Trauma & Its Lifelong Impact: 12 Resources

Childhood trauma in adultsChildhood trauma casts a long shadow, shaping the lives of individuals long after the events themselves have passed.

For therapists, understanding the profound impacts of childhood trauma is essential for providing effective support and intervention for those who have experienced it.

In this article, we delve into the intricate landscape of childhood trauma, exploring its definition, prevalence, and the far-reaching consequences it can have on mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing.

By gaining a deeper understanding of childhood trauma, therapists can better recognize its signs, provide compassionate care, and guide clients on a path toward healing and resilience.

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What Is Childhood Trauma?

Childhood trauma encompasses a broad spectrum of adverse experiences that occur during the formative years of a person’s life.

These experiences can range from physical, emotional, or sexual abuse to neglect, household dysfunction, attachment issues, or exposure to violence (Herman, 1997).

What distinguishes childhood trauma is not merely the nature of the event itself but the profound and lasting impact it has on a child’s developing brain, emotions, and sense of self (Copley, 2023; Courtois & Ford, 2012).

At its core, childhood trauma disrupts the fundamental sense of safety and security that children rely on for healthy development. When a child’s basic needs for love, protection, and nurturing are not met, it can result in deep-seated emotional wounds that persist into adulthood (Copley, 2023).

Moreover, the effects of childhood trauma are not limited to the individual; they can reverberate through families, communities, and generations, perpetuating cycles of dysfunction and adversity.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (n.d.a), the prevalence of childhood trauma is staggering, with millions of children worldwide experiencing adverse events each year. Nearly two-thirds of adults report experiencing at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE), such as abuse, neglect, or household dysfunction, during their upbringing.

Furthermore, individuals who experience multiple ACEs are at significantly higher risk for a wide range of negative outcomes, including mental health disorders, substance abuse, chronic health conditions, and even premature mortality (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019; Shonkoff & Garner, 2011).

One of the most insidious aspects of childhood trauma is its silent nature. Many children who experience trauma suffer in silence, unable to articulate their pain or seek help from caregivers who may be unaware of the abuse or neglect occurring within the home. As a result, childhood trauma often goes unrecognized and untreated, leading to long-term consequences that can persist well into adulthood (Courtois & Ford, 2012).

The impacts of childhood trauma are multifaceted, affecting virtually every aspect of a person’s life. Despite the pervasive and far-reaching effects of childhood trauma, however, there is hope for healing and recovery.

With the right support, resources, and therapeutic interventions, individuals can learn to overcome the impact of trauma, reclaim their sense of agency and autonomy, and build meaningful and fulfilling lives.

By shedding light on this complex and often misunderstood topic, therapists can play a vital role in supporting survivors of childhood trauma on their journey toward resilience and wellbeing.

The Impact & Consequences of Trauma in a Child

Adverse childhood experiencesChildhood trauma can have profound and enduring effects on a child’s emotional, psychological, and physical wellbeing, with consequences that may persist into adulthood (Copley, 2023; Walker, 2013).

Children exposed to trauma may experience a range of emotional responses, including fear, anxiety, sadness, anger, and confusion. Additionally, trauma can impair a child’s ability to form secure attachments and trust others, which can have long-term implications for their relationships and interpersonal functioning (Siegel, 2012).

For many survivors of trauma, feelings of shame, guilt, and worthlessness may become deeply ingrained, leading to low self-esteem, self-destructive behaviors, and a pervasive sense of hopelessness (Mate, 2019; Walker, 2013).

Over time, untreated trauma can contribute to a variety of adverse outcomes, including mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse (Courtois & Ford, 2012; Levine, 2010).

Trauma can also impact physical health, increasing the risk of chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, and autoimmune disorders. Furthermore, childhood trauma has been linked to impairments in academic achievement, employment opportunities, and overall quality of life (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, n.d.a).

How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime

The cumulative effects of trauma can undermine a child’s sense of self-worth, identity, and resilience (Fisher, 2017), making it crucial for caregivers, educators, and mental health professionals to recognize and address trauma-related symptoms and provide appropriate support and interventions to promote healing and recovery.

7 Types of Adverse Childhood Experiences

Understanding the different types of adverse childhood experiences is essential for therapists working with individuals who have endured trauma during their formative years (Copley, 2023).

According to leading trauma experts, these experiences encompass a range of physical, emotional, and environmental factors that can profoundly impact a child’s development and wellbeing (Herman, 1997; Levine, 2010; Mate, 2019; Ogden & Fisher, 2015; Siegel, 2012; Van der Kolk, 2015; Walker, 2013).

1. Physical abuse

  • Physical abuse involves the intentional infliction of physical harm or injury upon a child by a parent or caregiver.
  • It can manifest as hitting, kicking, shaking, burning, or other forms of violence, resulting in bruises, fractures, or other injuries.
  • Children who experience physical abuse may develop a range of emotional and behavioral problems, including anxiety, depression, aggression, and self-harm.

2. Emotional abuse

  • Emotional abuse encompasses behaviors that undermine a child’s self-worth, confidence, and emotional wellbeing.
  • It can involve constant criticism, belittling, rejection, or threats of abandonment, leading to feelings of shame, guilt, and worthlessness.
  • Emotional abuse can have profound and long-lasting effects on a child’s self-esteem, interpersonal relationships, and mental health, contributing to anxiety disorders, depression, and difficulties forming trusting connections with others.

3. Sexual abuse

  • Sexual abuse refers to any sexual activity or behavior imposed on a child by an adult or older individual in a position of power or authority.
  • It can include sexual touching, molestation, exploitation, or rape, leaving the child feeling violated, confused, and ashamed.
  • Children who experience sexual abuse may struggle with a range of psychological and emotional consequences, including PTSD, sexual dysfunction, and difficulties forming healthy intimate relationships.

4. Neglect

  • Neglect occurs when a parent or caregiver fails to provide for a child’s basic physical, emotional, or developmental needs.
  • It can involve inadequate supervision, nutrition, medical care, or emotional support, leading to physical and emotional deprivation.
  • Children who experience neglect may suffer from malnutrition, poor hygiene, developmental delays, and attachment difficulties, impacting their overall health and wellbeing.

5. Household dysfunction

  • Household dysfunction encompasses a range of adverse circumstances within the family environment that can negatively impact a child’s wellbeing.
  • It may include parental substance abuse, mental illness, domestic violence, incarceration, or divorce, creating an unstable and chaotic living environment.
  • Children exposed to household dysfunction may experience emotional trauma, disruption in attachment relationships, and heightened stress levels, increasing their risk for behavioral problems, academic difficulties, and mental health disorders.

6. Community violence

  • Community violence refers to exposure to violence or traumatic events within the child’s broader community, such as witnessing or experiencing crime, gang activity, war, genocide, or natural disasters.
  • It can lead to feelings of fear, helplessness, and insecurity, as well as heightened vigilance and hypervigilance.
  • Children who experience community violence may develop symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, depression, and behavioral problems, affecting their ability to function effectively at home, school, and in social settings.

7. Grief and loss

  • Grief and loss encompass the experience of losing a loved one or significant attachment figure through death, separation, or abandonment.
  • It can result in intense emotional pain, sadness, and longing, as well as feelings of emptiness, disbelief, and anger.
  • Children who experience grief and loss may struggle with adjustment difficulties, unresolved grief, and challenges in processing their emotions, impacting their overall wellbeing and functioning.
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9 Symptoms of Childhood Trauma in Adults

Recognizing the symptoms of childhood trauma in adults is crucial for therapists in providing comprehensive and tailored treatment to individuals who have experienced adverse childhood experiences (Rothschild, 2000; Siegel, 2012; Walker, 2013).

These symptoms manifest across various domains of functioning and can significantly impact an individual’s mental, emotional, and physical health. By identifying these symptoms, therapists can develop targeted interventions to address the underlying trauma and support individuals in their healing journey.

  1. Emotional dysregulation
    Adults who have experienced childhood trauma may struggle with affect regulation, leading to frequent mood swings, intense emotional reactions, and difficulty managing stress (Van der Kolk, 2015).
  2. Flashbacks and intrusive memories
    Individuals may experience flashbacks, negative automatic thoughts, or intrusive memories of traumatic events from their childhood, causing distressing and vivid recollections of past experiences (Rothschilds, 2000; Siegel, 2012).
  3. Avoidance behaviors
    Avoidance of people, places, or situations that remind them of the traumatic event(s) is common among adults with childhood trauma. This may include avoiding certain social settings, relationships, or activities that trigger distressing memories (Mate, 2019).
  4. Hypervigilance
    Adults who have experienced childhood trauma may exhibit hypervigilance, constantly scanning their environment for potential threats or danger. This heightened state of alertness can lead to feelings of anxiety, restlessness, and difficulty relaxing (Rothschilds, 2000; Van Der Kolk, 2015).
  5. Difficulty trusting others
    Trust issues are common among individuals with childhood trauma, as they may have experienced betrayal, abandonment, or abuse by caregivers or authority figures during their formative years (Fisher, 2017).
  6. Low self-esteem and self-worth
    Childhood trauma can profoundly impact an individual’s sense of self-esteem and self-worth, leading to feelings of shame, guilt, and inadequacy (Copley, 2023; Fisher, 2017).
  7. Relationship problems
    Adults with childhood trauma may struggle with forming and maintaining healthy relationships, experiencing difficulties with intimacy, communication, and trust (Copley, 2023).
  8. Substance abuse and addiction
    Coping with the effects of childhood trauma may lead some individuals to turn to substance abuse or addictive behaviors as a way of numbing emotional pain and seeking relief (Mate, 2019).
  9. Physical health issues
    Childhood trauma can contribute to a range of physical health problems in adulthood, including chronic pain, gastrointestinal issues, and autoimmune disorders, as well as an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions (Levine, 2010).

Risk & Protective Factors of Adverse Childhood Experiences

Risk factors of ACEAdverse childhood experiences can occur across diverse demographic groups, but certain factors may increase the likelihood of a child experiencing trauma.

Socioeconomic disadvantage, including poverty, unstable housing, and limited access to resources, can heighten the risk of exposure to adversity (Herman, 1997).

Additionally, children living in environments where substance abuse, domestic violence, or parental mental illness are prevalent may face an elevated risk of experiencing trauma.

Other risk factors include family dysfunction, such as parental conflict, divorce, or separation, as well as community-level factors like crime and violence (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, n.d.b).

Moreover, individual characteristics, such as age, gender, and preexisting mental health conditions, may also influence an individual’s susceptibility to childhood trauma.

However, despite the presence of risk factors, certain protective factors can help buffer children from the adverse effects of trauma and promote resilience. Supportive and nurturing relationships with caregivers, family members, and other significant adults serve as a critical protective factor for children facing adversity (Copley, 2023).

Stable and secure attachments provide a sense of safety and security, fostering emotional regulation and coping skills.

Access to quality education, health care, and mental health services can also mitigate the impact of childhood trauma by providing children with the resources and support they need to thrive.

Additionally, safe and supportive communities, positive peer relationships, and opportunities for social engagement and extracurricular activities contribute to resilience building and help children develop adaptive coping strategies in the face of adversity.

By addressing risk factors and enhancing protective factors, therapists, educators, and other professionals can play a pivotal role in promoting resilience and supporting the wellbeing of children and adolescents impacted by childhood trauma.

4 Childhood Trauma Quotes to Encourage Healing

Adults who were abused or neglected as children can still learn the beauty of intimacy and mutual trust or have a deep spiritual experience that opens them to a greater universe.

Van der Kolk, 2015, p. 131

Once clients release the wounds that another has caused, they are freed up, they no longer carry the trauma inside of themselves, and they are untethered from their perpetrator. They possess a power from within that is rooted in compassion and love.

Anderson, 2021, p. 181

In becoming embodied, [trauma survivors] return from their long exile. They come home to their bodies and know embodied life, as though for the first time. While trauma is hell on earth, its resolution may be a gift from the gods.

Levine, 2010, p. 356

Because of your upbringing or the painful relationships you found along the way, you forgot one of your most inherent and inalienable truths: You are a creator. You can fashion something new from the old and transform wounds into wisdom. This new way of reconnecting with yourself, re-parenting yourself, loving yourself, and remembering how you deserve to be loved is how you reclaim what was once taken.

Copley, 2023, p. 181

How to Heal From Childhood Trauma: 5 Coping Strategies

Heal from chidhood traumaHealing from childhood trauma is a complex and multifaceted process that requires a holistic approach addressing various aspects of wellbeing.

In this section, we will explore five coping strategies leading researchers have identified (Copley, 2023; Courtois & Ford, 2012; Siegel, 2012; Van Der Kolk, 2015; Walker, 2013) that encompass emotional, psychological, and relational dimensions to support individuals in their journey toward healing and resilience.

1. Seek therapy

Engaging in therapy with a qualified mental health professional, such as a therapist specializing in trauma-informed care or cognitive-behavioral therapy, can provide valuable support and guidance in processing traumatic experiences, building coping skills, and fostering emotional healing.

2. Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness techniques, such as deep breathing exercises, meditation, and grounding exercises, can help individuals cultivate present-moment awareness, reduce stress and anxiety, and promote emotional regulation. By staying grounded in the present, individuals can develop greater self-awareness and coping resilience.

3. Build supportive relationships

Establishing and nurturing supportive relationships with trusted friends, family members, or support groups can provide a sense of safety, validation, and connection. Having a supportive network of individuals who understand and validate one’s experiences can be instrumental in the healing journey.

4. Engage in self-care

Prioritizing self-care activities, such as regular exercise, adequate sleep, healthy nutrition, and engaging in hobbies or activities that bring joy and relaxation, can help individuals replenish their physical and emotional energy reserves. Self-care practices promote overall wellbeing and resilience in the face of adversity.

5. Explore creative expression

Engaging in creative outlets, such as art therapy, journaling, music, or dance, can provide a therapeutic means of self-expression and processing emotions related to childhood trauma. Creative expression allows individuals to explore and communicate their feelings nonverbally, fostering healing and self-discovery.

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PositivePsychology.com’s Resources on the Topic

Below, you will find a curated selection of articles offering insights into trauma and effective treatment strategies. These resources cover a range of topics, including understanding trauma, healthy coping mechanisms, and evidence-based interventions, providing valuable support and guidance for therapists and individuals navigating the healing journey.

  1. For strategies to soothe heightened emotions and reactivity, we recommend our article What Are Distress Tolerance Skills? Your Ultimate DBT Toolkit.
  2. To learn more about how upbringing and relationships with parents impact our development, please read Attachment Styles in Children (& How to Raise Secure Kids).
  3. If you are interested in learning more about reparenting the wounded inner child, our article Inner Child Healing: 35 Practical Tools for Growing Beyond Your Past will be a helpful read.
  4. Finally, to deal with intrusive thoughts and negative thought distortions that arise as a result of complex trauma, we recommend our article Mindful Thinking: 4+ Ways to Stop Ruminating & Overthinking.

The Coping Skills Inventory is a free worksheet that identifies coping skills that can be used to overcome stress and negative thinking and help establish self-care practices.

Writing has therapeutic benefits, and this My Grief Plan worksheet encourages reflection on sad emotions and how to work through them.

Our Anxiety Cards worksheet is a handy tool that can be printed and cut out for reminders of coping strategies when anxiety tries to take control of your day.

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others overcome adversity, check out this collection of 17 validated resilience and coping exercises. Use them to help others recover from personal challenges and turn setbacks into opportunities for growth.

A Take-Home Message

In the exploration of childhood trauma, it’s essential to recognize the profound and lasting impact it can have on individuals’ lives.

We can better support those who are suffering from trauma by comprehending the various forms of negative childhood experiences, identifying the symptoms in adulthood, and identifying both risk and protective factors.

Through coping strategies and inspirational messages from experts in the field, we emphasize the importance of resilience, healing, and seeking support on the journey toward recovery and growth.

Remember, healing from childhood trauma is a process, but with patience, self-compassion, and the right resources, healing is possible.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Resilience Exercises for free.

  • Anderson, F. (2021). Transcending trauma: How to navigate the storms of life. PESI.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019). Preventing adverse childhood experiences (ACEs): Leveraging the best available evidence. Retrieved April 24, 2024, from https://stacks.cdc.gov/view/cdc/82316 
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.a). Fast facts: Preventing adverse childhood experiences. Retrieved April 24, 2024, from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/aces/fastfact.html.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.b). Risk and protective factors. Retrieved April 26, 2024, from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/aces/riskprotectivefactors.html
  • Copley, L. A. (2023). Loving you is hurting me: A new approach to healing trauma bonds and creating authentic connection. Hachette Book Group.
  • Courtois, C. A., & Ford, J. D. (Eds.). (2012). Treating complex traumatic stress disorders (adults): Scientific foundations and therapeutic models. Guilford Press.
  • Fisher, J. (2017). Healing the fragmented selves of trauma survivors: Overcoming internal self-alienation. Routledge.
  • Herman, J. L. (1997). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence: From domestic abuse to political terror. Basic Books.
  • Levine, P. A. (2010). In an unspoken voice: How the body releases trauma and restores goodness. North Atlantic Books.
  • Mate, G. (2019). When the body says no: The cost of hidden stress. Vintage Canada.
  • Ogden, P., & Fisher, J. (2015). Sensorimotor psychotherapy: Interventions for trauma and attachment. W. W. Norton & Company.
  • Rothschild, B. (2000). The body remembers: The psychophysiology of trauma and trauma treatment. W. W. Norton & Company.
  • Siegel, D. J. (2012). The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. Guilford Press.
  • Van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.
  • Walker, P. (2013). Complex PTSD: From surviving to thriving: A guide and map for recovering from childhood trauma. Azure Coyote.

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