Ideally, a child’s life is brimming with natural curiosity, playfulness, wonder, and awe. Ideally, it’s also a time of feeling deeply secure—of being nourished and protected by parents and other caregivers. Children can develop the confidence to explore their world in healthy family relationships. They may also develop a sense of safety in initiating relationships later in life.
For many children, however, traumatic rather than idyllic experiences define the first years of their lives. And traumatizing events during childhood can have lasting effects on the adults these children become.
Those who struggle with traumatic experiences, and their loved ones, can benefit from understanding what makes an event traumatic. Along with how childhood trauma influences a person into adulthood. And how childhood trauma can be effectively treated using evidence-based treatment.
What Is Trauma?
Trauma is a psychological response to a horrific event such as an accident, mugging, rape, or natural disaster. 1 Adverse events that cause a trauma response generally pose the threat of injury, death, or the person’s physical integrity and also cause feelings of terror, horror, or helplessness. 2
Shock and denial are typical responses in the immediate aftermath of such an event. Extended reactions to a traumatic event may include emotional volatility, flashbacks, strained relationships, and physical symptoms such as nausea or headaches.
Some events—e.g., active wartime combat, a devastating natural disaster, or the sudden death of a beloved parent—may be considered inherently traumatic. However, different people respond to challenging events in different ways. An event that creates a trauma response in one person may not have the same effect on another person.
Through education and previous life experience, an adult may have cultivated the necessary resources to process a challenging situation emotionally. But many adults don’t have the resources to process such life events. Thus, they are traumatized by them and may carry the scars of the trauma for years or decades.
Children are even more vulnerable to being traumatized by such events. This is because they don’t yet filter them through the lens of education, socialization, and a store of life experience. Terrifying or horrific events can feel even more overwhelming through the eyes of a child. And their lack of understanding can result in feelings of helplessness, panic, and self-blame.
What are Adverse Childhood Experiences?
A traumatic event threatens a child’s life or physical safety. A single frightening, dangerous, or violent event can create a trauma response. This response involves solid emotions and physical reactions that can persist for weeks, months, or years after the event.
A child may experience feelings of fear, terror, or helplessness. They may have physiological reactions such as rapid breathing, a racing heart, nausea, vomiting, or loss of bowel or bladder control. Children who experience an inability to protect themselves or the absence of protection from others may also be overwhelmed by the intensity of such a situation.
For some children, it’s not just a single event but a series of dangerous, frightening, or violent events. This series of events can create an environment of chronic stress and ongoing trauma.
As is the case with adults, different children respond differently to intensely challenging life events and circumstances. Each will develop their coping mechanisms. Some will be able to emotionally process the event. While others will have a trauma response and may develop deep and long-lasting psychological scars.
When the violent or horrifying circumstances continue for months or years and involve supposedly trustworthy parents or caregivers, this can create what’s known as “complex trauma.” The scars of complex trauma can be especially deep.
How Does Childhood Trauma Affect Adults?
Unresolved childhood trauma can negatively impact the lives of the adults that these children become in numerous ways.
Childhood Trauma & Sense of Self-Worth
Traumatizing experiences undermine a child’s sense of safety and stability and their feelings of self-worth. This compromised self-worth and inability to feel safe can carry through into adulthood. When a child’s sense of identity is fractured, it can take many years of psychological work to reconfigure the broken pieces.
Feelings of guilt, shame, and humiliation are related to unresolved childhood trauma. Such feelings can undermine adult relationships and contribute to anxiety and depression.
Unresolved Childhood Trauma & PTSD
Children who experience sexual abuse or other forms of trauma often develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms of PTSD can continue into adulthood.
Adults struggling with PTSD from unresolved childhood trauma often have difficulty in their personal and professional relationships. They may have trouble holding down a job, focusing in school, or relating to their spouse, domestic partner, or children.
Physical Symptoms of Unresolved Childhood Trauma
Physical signs and symptoms of unresolved childhood trauma may include:
Emotional Symptoms of Unresolved Childhood Trauma
Emotional symptoms of unresolved childhood trauma may include:
Behavioral Signs of Unresolved Childhood Trauma
Behavioral signs and symptoms of unresolved childhood trauma may include:
Long-Lasting Effects of Childhood Trauma
Various physical and psychological ailments—including substance abuse and mental health disorders—can result from untreated childhood trauma. 4
People who’ve experienced childhood abuse are likely to experience stress and anxiety as adults. This long-term stress can contribute to many physical maladies and emotional issues throughout life.
There’s also a strong connection between childhood trauma and high-risk behaviors. These behaviors include smoking and unprotected sex, chronic illnesses such as heart disease and cancer, and early death. 5
In short, if left unresolved, childhood trauma sets the stage for various physical, mental, and emotional ailments during adulthood.
Childhood Trauma & Adult Attachment Disorders
A child’s psychological health depends, in large part, upon their relationship with their parents or primary caregivers.
Healthy, secure attachments (i.e., relationships) to one’s parents tend to create adults who have a healthy sense of self-esteem. They can cultivate trusting and lasting relationships. They can comfortably share feelings with their partners and friends. And they know how to ask for social support.
When a child is physically, emotionally, or sexually abused by a parent, sibling, or caregiver, this can seriously damage the way the child forms attachments later in life.
Such a child may view protectors and caretakers through a different filter. They may no longer trust them to provide safety and security. Children with traumatizing experiences are at high risk of developing an adult attachment disorder.
Dismissive (Anxious-Avoidant) Attachment
When the primary caregiver is strict and emotionally distant, doesn’t tolerate the expression of feelings, ignores or rejects a child’s needs, and expects the child to be tough and independent—then the dismissive (aka anxious-avoidant) attachment style is likely to develop.
When a child becomes an adult, they may appear highly independent, confident, and self-sufficient. But this apparent self-sufficiency is, at least partly, a strategy for protecting themselves against being rejected again. As adults, these people do not tolerate emotional or physical intimacy and may have trouble building healthy relationships.
Disorganized (Fearful-Avoidant) Attachment
When parents or other caregivers—a child’s primary source of safety—become a source of fear via abuse or neglect, the disorganized (aka fearful-avoidant) attachment style is likely to develop.
The adults these children become tend to fear intimacy and close relationships and be highly inconsistent in their behavior. They often have a hard time trusting others and sharing emotions—and hence seem disconnected from their spouse or partner.
Preoccupied (Anxious-Ambivalent) Attachment
When parents are inconsistent in the emotional security they provide to their children, this sets the stage for developing a preoccupied attachment style. In a repeating cycle, expressing love and appreciation for a child and then rejecting them causes them to question their place and continuously requires ongoing validation.
The adults that these children become often suffer from low self-esteem and a strong fear of rejection or abandonment. They can seem overly needy or clingy in relationships and require repeated validation from their friends and partner. They never feel entirely secure.
Attachment disorders emerging from unresolved childhood trauma disrupt relationships and lead to other mental health disorders.
Mental health disorders that may emerge from attachment disorders can include: 6
Effective Treatments for Childhood Trauma
The cornerstone of such therapy is psychotherapy. Whether the primary effect of the trauma is PTSD, an attachment disorder, or any other emotional or behavioral symptoms, a skilled mental health professional help. A mental health provider can apply several therapeutic modalities to support healing.
The first step in such a therapeutic process is often debunking common misconceptions about early childhood trauma that the client or their loved ones may be harboring.
Such misconceptions include:
- That a person who was neglected or abused as a child will abuse and/or neglect their own children.
- That abused and neglected children will always grow up to become adults who behave in deviant ways.
- That the effects of abuse and neglect are irreparable—and so the adult will never be able to fully recover.
None of these three statements is true. Overcoming childhood trauma in adults is possible through therapy, with the support of a skilled counselor or psychotherapist. There are a variety of modalities that have proven particularly successful in resolving childhood trauma. Many of them are forms of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT)
Cognitive processing therapy (CPT) is a subtype of cognitive behavioral therapy. And it is often the first choice when treating PTSD symptoms in an adult client who experienced childhood trauma. In this form of therapy, the client learns to recognize and relate to the thoughts and emotions associated with the memory of their trauma.
Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT)
Like cognitive processing therapy, trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy is a subtype of cognitive behavioral therapy. It incorporates trauma-sensitive interventions and humanistic principles into cognitive behavioral techniques. This form of therapy also invites the participation of trusted parents and caregivers in the treatment process. 7
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is another modality that has proven effective for treating childhood trauma and PTSD. EMDR is an empirically validated treatment that can address unprocessed memories related to traumatic childhood experiences. The practitioner employing EMDR uses repetitive eye movements to repattern memories from the traumatizing event. 8
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)
Studies have shown that mindfulness-based interventions can be beneficial for childhood abuse/neglect survivors to alleviate psychological symptoms. These symptoms include stress, anxiety, recurrent depression, substance use, and post-traumatic stress. As such, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and other mindfulness-based approaches are excellent options for adults working to resolve childhood trauma. 9
Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET)
Narrative exposure therapy (NET) is an alternative to trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy that’s particularly effective for people with PTSD and those who have experienced multiple traumatic events. NET is a short-term intervention that focuses on embedding trauma exposure into a specific autobiographical context known as a timeline.
Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE)
Prolonged exposure therapy is a subtype of cognitive behavioral therapy used to treat PTSD and other mental health conditions. A therapist employing PE supports the client in confronting trauma-related memories. While also confronting the fears and different feelings associated with the event. 10
Art therapy uses creative expression to address and heal the effects of traumatic events. Art mediums used in this modality include drawing, coloring, painting, collage, and sculpture. Art therapy provides a way of expressing that doesn’t require words. It may help reduce stress, cultivate emotional resilience, and improve cognition.
Childhood Trauma Treatment in Orange County
The effects of childhood trauma can be resolved with the support of a compassionate and skilled team of mental health professionals. SoCal Mental Health provides exactly this kind of support to trauma survivors.
The SoCal Mental Health facilities are a testament to the immeasurable value of combining evidence-based therapy with human compassion.
Our caring staff, highly trained therapists, and counselors provide the best possible care in a small, home-like setting. This is where clients feel comfortable and supported throughout their healing process.
At SoCal Mental Health, the sole commitment is to the health and well-being of every client. A diverse team of interdisciplinary professionals has the training and resources to create a comprehensive, responsive, and effective healing protocol. Care providers with various roles, backgrounds, and specialties collaborate to maximize desired outcomes for the clients.
SoCal Mental Health offers skilled treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychiatric conditions related to childhood trauma. Treatment modalities include trauma-informed therapy along with:
This abundance of therapeutic resources allows each client’s unique circumstances to be addressed. We work with our clients to support them as they embark upon and complete their healing journey.
References & Resources
- Trauma. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/topics/trauma#:~:text=Trauma%20is%20an%20emotional%20response,symptoms%20like%20headaches%20or%20nausea.
- Children and Trauma: Update for Mental Health Professionals. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/pi/families/resources/children-trauma-update
- What Is Child Trauma: Trauma Types. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/trauma-types
- Copeland WE, Shanahan L, Hinesley J, et al. Association of Childhood Trauma Exposure With Adult Psychiatric Disorders and Functional Outcomes.JAMA Netw Open. 2018;1(7):e184493.https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2713038
- What Is Child Trauma: Effects. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/trauma-types/complex-trauma/effects
- Davies, Nicola. (August 3, 2020) Understanding Adult Attachment Disorders. Psychiatry Advisor. https://www.psychiatryadvisor.com/home/topics/general-psychiatry/understanding-adult-attachment-disorders/
- Cohen JA, Mannarino AP. Trauma-focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Traumatized Children and Families. Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am. 2015 Jul;24(3):557-70. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4476061/
- Shapiro F. The role of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy in medicine: addressing the psychological and physical symptoms stemming from adverse life experiences. Perm J. 2014 Winter;18(1):71-7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3951033/
- Joss D, Teicher MH. Clinical effects of mindfulness-based interventions for adults with a history of childhood maltreatment: a scoping review. Curr Treat Options Psychiatry. 2021 Jun;8(2):31-46. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33987076/
- Clinical Practice Guideline for the Treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Prolonged Exposure. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/treatments/prolonged-exposure