Childhood Trauma

“The experience of an event by a child that is emotionally painful or distressful, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects.”

National Institute of Mental Health

Childhood trauma occurs when a child experiences traumatic events that trigger an intense sense of fear, loss, or sense of self. This can be a result of endangerment situations, experiencing childhood abuse, or an accident that completely alters a child’s life. While there are some general manifestations of trauma, unpacking complex trauma disorders and their impacts on mental health can be a long process. Many children exposed to traumatic events will often find a way to develop a survival mode and coping mechanisms to get through it. However, while childhood trauma may build psychological resilience in the short term, it can greatly affect the lives of trauma survivors in the long term.

It is especially difficult to recognize child trauma when it implies acknowledging intergenerational trauma that involves family members, community violence, or domestic violence that incurs child abuse or emotional abuse. These are some of the many reasons why it can take years before a person even realizes he or she has experienced it.

Dealing with our experiences, and making sure the past is being processed correctly is crucial to living a full and happy life. We must tackle our limitations and understand that as we progress in the healing process, our everyday life will improve.

Defining a Traumatic Experience

While we’ve all experienced stress in our lives, at one point or another, stress is a crucial element of defining an extremely traumatic experience, stress alone is not sufficient to provoke trauma. A trauma, and trauma response, occurs when an event or series of events produces a great deal of stress and emotional symptoms that prevent a person from developing a healthy sense of self. A sense of horror, powerlessness, physical illnesses, a heightened stress response, or the threat of major injury or death characterize traumatic occurrences.

Trauma is not experienced as an isolated event

Survivors, rescue personnel, and friends and relatives of victims who have been involved in a traumatic experience are all affected by traumatic occurrences. They may also affect others who witnessed the event in person or were even affected by it indirectly.

For a better understanding of what constitutes trauma, here are some common manifestations of how people experience their childhood trauma. It’s important to note that these are just common examples of how trauma may affect mental health — your experience may not necessarily reflect any of the ones listed here, and that’s perfectly fine.

Understanding Childhood Trauma

Childhood traumas can present themselves in the form of direct and personal experiences that involve physical abuse, sexual abuse, or emotional abuse. However, a traumatic event such as surviving a life-altering accident, or witnessing a particularly fearful situation falls under the child trauma category. While it is more often than not the continuous exposure to a traumatic situation, even the occasional event can be psychologically devastating for the child and induce traumatic stress.

Physical abuse is one of the most common traumatic events a child can suffer, along with psychological abuse that may later present itself as mood and anxiety disorders. For children and adults, stress can cause PTSD even when it can just feel as much as daily life. The effects of childhood trauma on mental health may not be obvious or immediate but it is hard to overlook them as we move on with our adult lives.

Approximately 46% of children have suffered trauma during their teenage years. While it is common for adults to reflect on specific situations and brush them off as “being too young when it happened and barely remember it”, it’s often that unresolved childhood trauma that is yet to be brought into the conscious mind that affects us later in life.

Children’s mental health can be impacted without us noticing and can lead to substance abuse or other self-harming patterns that will affect the correct development of the child, and later on, impact their adult life. Child traumatic stress can present itself in many forms, ​​among the most common causes of childhood trauma are:

  • Accidents
  • Bullying/cyberbullying
  • Domestic violence
  • Dysfunctional household
  • Death of a loved one
  • Emotional abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Abrupt separation from a parent or caregiver
  • Sexual abuse
  • Serious illness
  • Stress
  • Violence in any frequent environment
  • Natural Disaster
  • Physical Injury

Early intervention, specific actions to support children that have experienced childhood adversity, and recognizing a child’s trauma is the best way to prevent trauma in adulthood.


Fast Facts Regarding Childhood Trauma

  • Nearly 50% of children in America have experienced childhood trauma
  • At least 1 in 7 children have experienced childhood trauma
  • More than 2,000 children and adolescents receive medical treatment every year for assault-related trauma
  • In 2019, about 1 in five students reported being abused on school property
  • 8% were involved in a physical fight over school property.
  • Every day, 14 people die in homicides and nearly 1300 are hospitalized to treat their injuries.

How Trauma can Manifest in Children

Child traumatic stress can manifest in several ways when we’re young, and being able to identify psychological and physiological responses to particular situations is crucial to incur in early treatment. Trauma symptoms may not always be easily identifiable and may be confused with adolescent behavior or mental health disorders. Some of the most common ways in which a child’s trauma is manifested are:

Difficulty in school

Traumatic experiences can harm learning and long-term academic success. Children may seek to avoid school work or school activities that involve being around many people, exhibit inattention, demonstrate a lack of respect towards authorities on an academic campus, as well as experience a general decline in academic results. It is very common for children experiencing an ongoing traumatic event to succumb to these detrimental behaviors.

Physical Health Affections

As kids grow older, the possibility of psychological traumas is an additional symptom that can present as a range of trauma spectrum disorders such as self-harm, substance abuse, isolation, and the inability to maintain a healthy eating and sleeping schedule. Adverse childhood experiences increase the risk of a child developing chronic health conditions like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, or suicide.

Relationship and trust issues

Several childhood traumas involve friends, a caregiver, or a relative. These events may diminish trusting feelings of confidence and difficulty to create strong and lasting bonds with others. Children that have experienced or are experiencing trauma often find it difficult to establish or retain a long-standing healthy relationship in any capacity.

Traumatic Experiences and Mental Health

It is important when learning about childhood trauma that there is no specific cause-effect relationship. It can occur in several different ways, age plays a crucial part, and also varies depending on how well you process an issue with the proper support system.

Childhood Trauma on Mental Health: Psychological Affectations

A child’s traumatic experiences may cause them psychological trauma which is a significant cause. Depending upon the diagnosis, coping with childhood trauma usually involves treatment incorporating cognitive behavioral techniques, especially trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy and techniques developmentally appropriate for young people. In addition to PTSD, there can also be other disorders that can be attributed to trauma such as panic disorder, and personality disorders that will fully develop in adulthood.

What Does Childhood Trauma Look like in Adults?

Childhood trauma can also lead us to feel isolated or have no connection to other people. Studies show that children experiencing childhood trauma had more difficulty controlling their emotional states and anxiety and depressed feelings. Trauma affects 60% of the population in the U.S, which is not surprising when 26% are expected to experience trauma or witness potentially traumatic events before they turn four years old.

It is important to consider, when treating childhood trauma survivors, that the age or ages at which the trauma was experienced impacts the understanding and the experience regarding said trauma. This is why seeking mental health services that have a specialized mental health professional that can provide trauma-informed care is crucial. Emotional health is often overlooked, despite its importance in the fulfillment and joy it brings to our lives.

Unfortunately replicating unhealthy behavior learned during trauma is a common way of experiencing it, which is why seeking proper mental health treatments is essential to overcome this.

Signs of lingering childhood trauma in adults

When we grow old, we mature and receive professional treatment for childhood trauma. Others are going to continue influencing unintentional childhood experiences and carry this sentiment into adulthood. A childhood trauma that can persist through adulthood includes:

Attachment and relationships

A further warning sign from childhood trauma carried through to adulthood is problems with attachment and relationship formation. You will be mistrustful when it comes to your child’s caregiver. It may be carried on to maturity and affects our relationships with others as individuals. Intimate partner violence is not uncommon in these cases.

Maybe the relationship is unhealthy because you knew that from childhood. Whatever the cause, the lack of healthy relationships can also indicate underlying childhood trauma in your child.

Post-traumatic stress disorder

Often PTSD symptoms arise as a result of unresolved trauma but this problem is incredibly specific. It does not affect anyone who has experienced trauma. Only about 4% of females have experienced PTSD after an incident. However, there is a possibility that you have unsolved PTSD from your childhood and you are experiencing it as an adult.

Childhood Trauma and Substance Abuse

Childhood trauma can easily drive people into seeking refuge in substances, particularly when they’re unaware of their trauma and the reasons behind their feeling or reaction to certain situations.

In conclusion, childhood trauma may continue beyond childhood. Researchers have shown that traumatic childhood experiences have a significant effect on substance use disorders. It’s good! Children can recover from trauma and you may have a significant impact on them.

Childhood Trauma and Substance Abuse