What is childhood trauma, and how does it affect us as adults? Traumatic events are adverse, cause emotional pain, and overwhelm the person, so they’re unable to cope. Children derive meaning from the things they experience. They use this to create internal maps of the world and the people around them.
When most of these children grow up, they create new internal maps. However, those with trauma don’t always take this step. Instead, survivors of childhood trauma may continue to use old ways of interpreting the world. That can damage their functioning in adulthood.
Childhood trauma has been linked to addiction because it can lead to emotion dysregulation. Because the child is unable to regulate their emotions, they may learn unhealthy ways to cope with the traumatic experience. In adulthood, substance use is one of the ways a person may try to cope with things that happened in the past. Over time, they may develop a substance use disorder if they have not processed their past trauma or learned to regulate their emotions in a healthy way.
Examples of Childhood Trauma
Childhood trauma occurs when a person who has power over the child threatens or harms them.
Traumatic events experienced by children can include:
- Physical or emotional abuse
- Witnessing violence
- Natural disaster
- Domestic violence
- Severe illness
The person with power can be a:
- Older sibling
- Religious leader
- Police officer
- Any other person of authority
Abuse can happen at:
- Foster care
- And many other places
This type of childhood trauma involves deliberate, aggressive behaviors that lead to physical injury or harm to the child. Physical abuse can lead to bruises, scratches, broken bones, lacerations, burns, or loss of consciousness.
When an adult or any person older than the child who cares for them engages in sexual behavior with the child, it is sexual abuse. Childhood sexual abuse is sometimes referred to as betrayal trauma because it involves violating and exploiting the child’s trust.
Actions that create fear or injure the child’s dignity or psychological integrity are psychological abuse.
These actions can include:
- Threatening to abandon the child
- Scapegoating the child
- Confining them
- Physically humiliating them
- Coercing the child to inflict pain on themself
- Threatening to harm them or the people and things they care about
Childhood neglect is an omission of care that threatens a child’s survival. Failure to provide food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or leaving a child alone are forms of neglect.
There are several ways that childhood trauma can affect us in adulthood.
The false self is the person we present to the world. In childhood, we may create this false self to gain love from our parents by becoming the child we think they want us to be. During this process, we bury feelings that prevent us from getting our needs met by our caregivers.
Because our feelings are an essential part of ourselves, burying them can cause us to lose touch with who we truly are. We become afraid to drop the persona we have built because it has brought us love, acceptance, and care.
Finding out who you are beneath the mask involves reconnecting with your feelings and learning how to express your emotions.
When we use positive self-talk, it can be very empowering, but negative self-talk disempowers us and takes away our sense of control. This perception of being a victim may have been accurate during childhood, but we don’t have to remain victims as adults.
There is always a choice in how we think about ourselves and talk to ourselves, and we can think of ourselves as survivors instead of victims.
A child may think that anger is unacceptable or is a violent emotion that they must suppress. That can lead to suppression of anger as an adult. When you don’t allow yourself to express anger, you stay angry. You don’t take steps to resolve the trauma or understand your triggers. Because you can’t truly suppress anger, you express it through passive-aggressiveness.
Children who were abandoned or neglected bury their anger and fear, hoping that it will never happen again. When we do this, we abandon ourselves. We hold back, don’t feel our feelings, and become passive. Adults need feelings to help them know who they are and what they want.
Adult Attachment Disorders
A child who experiences abuse, neglect, or other forms of trauma does not form a secure, healthy attachment with their caregivers. These unhealthy attachment styles often carry over into adulthood and harm adult relationships.
Dismissive Avoidant :
The caregiver rejects or ignores the child’s needs. As an adult, they may become ultra-independent to protect themselves from feeling this type of rejection again.
The child experiences abuse and neglect and learns to fear intimacy and close relationships. In adulthood, they distrust and have a hard time sharing emotions, which keeps them from connecting with others.
The child’s caregivers are inconsistent and unpredictable, causing the child to fear for their safety. As an adult, they are clingy and require validation, and never feel completely safe from rejection.
When a child grows up afraid, and under stress, the immune system and stress response system do not develop normally. That can cause them to respond to everyday stress in extreme ways as adults. Stress also causes impairments in the brain and nervous system development.
Those who have experienced childhood trauma can have trouble identifying, expressing, and managing their emotions. They can experience significant amounts of depression, anxiety, and anger, and their emotional responses may be unpredictable.
Children tend to disassociate or mentally separate themselves from traumatic experiences. They may feel detached from their bodies or like they are experiencing a dream. Since dissociation is a learned coping mechanism, you can carry it into adulthood. Disassociation can and does occur when you are under large amounts of stress and negatively impact your adult life.
Dissociative amnesia is a medical condition. This condition means you are unable to recall information about your life – not because you have forgotten something, but because it has been specifically blocked out. This type of amnesia can affect a specific portion of your life or it can be more far-reaching.
Childhood trauma can lead to difficulties with self-regulation, impulse control, and thinking about the consequences of their actions. It can also increase the likelihood of engaging in high-risk behaviors in adulthood, like self-harm, unsafe sex, substance use, and more.
Children with a history of trauma can have difficulty thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving. It can also be hard for them to plan and anticipate the future. That is because they spend most of their time with their bodies and minds in survival mode.
Concept of Self
Because children learn their self-worth and value from others’ reactions, those with childhood trauma often have shame, guilt, low self-esteem, a poor self-image, and tend to blame themselves. These children can’t trust, don’t feel like the world is safe, and feel powerless to change their situation.
Long-Term Health Consequences
Childhood trauma leads to increased medical conditions throughout the lifespan. The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES) explored the long-lasting impact of childhood trauma on adulthood. A connection was found between exposure to trauma in childhood and high-risk behaviors, chronic illness, and early death.
Because dysregulation is at the root of addiction, substance use is a common means of coping with past trauma in adulthood. A person who is able to regulate their emotions can manage feelings, behaviors, and physical responses to events that elicit emotion. Because much childhood trauma happens in the home environment, these children are less likely to be exposed to modeling of appropriate emotion expression, labeling, and behaviors. Highly dysregulated children often experience retraumatization in adulthood.
How to Support an Adult with Childhood Trauma
Grounding can connect you with the present. It is a way to cope with flashbacks or disassociation during a trauma response. The five senses are often used to ground the person in reality.
A common grounding technique is to find:
- Five things you can see
- Four things you can touch
- Three things you can hear
- Two things you can smell
- One thing you can taste
The exercise creates distraction and redirection, bringing the person back to the present moment.
Mindfulness exercises also help you stay present in the moment. It can help you connect with positive emotional and social experiences and become more aware of your feelings and sense of who you are.
Past trauma can trigger a variety of trauma responses in the person. Learning to identify these triggers can help you to understand and learn to control your reactions to them.
Trauma-Focused CBT is an evidence-based talk therapy that was developed to help people who have experienced trauma. Individual weekly sessions with a therapist for 8-12 weeks are most effective.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapy treatment that uses bilateral eye movements similar to REM sleep, allowing the person to reprocess traumatic memories and store them in the past. That allows the person not to feel distressed when they think about the traumatic event.
Medications work best when combined with therapy and target specific symptoms, such as using antidepressants for depression or mood stabilizers for bipolar disorder.
Emotion Regulation Skills
Because many adults with childhood trauma have issues with emotion dysregulation, learning to regulate their emotions is a helpful tool in treating the trauma. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is one type of treatment that focuses on learning emotion regulation skills, along with mindfulness, distress tolerance, and interpersonal skills. Learning these skills can help the person adopt healthier coping mechanisms and replace unhealthy ones that may lead to addiction.
Overcoming Childhood Trauma
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Mental Health Center. How Childhood Trauma Affects Us As Adults | Mental Health. https://www.mentalhealthcenter.org/how-childhood-trauma-affects-adult-relationships/. n.d.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/trauma-types/complex-trauma/effects. n.d.
Priory Group. Supporting adults who have experienced trauma or abuse in childhood. https://www.priorygroup.com/blog/supporting-adults-who-have-experienced-trauma-or-abuse-in-childhood 2021.
Psychology Today. Childhood Trauma Can Affect Adults. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mindful-anger/201706/4-ways-childhood-trauma-can-affect-adults. 2017.