Symptoms Of Childhood Trauma In Adulthood

Childhood trauma is a life event that may affect people through adulthood. Studies¹ show that between 14 and 43% of women and 15 and 43% of men experience at least one trauma during childhood.

After a person faces a childhood trauma, they may have to deal with its consequences as adults. The effects of traumatic events influence people in different ways. Some may face socialization issues.

Others may have to battle addictions or develop chronic illnesses. Let's take a closer look at signs of childhood trauma in adults.  

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What is childhood trauma?

Childhood trauma is a consequence a child experiences after exposure to a traumatic event. A traumatic event is an occurrence that:

  • Threatens injury, death, or harm to the child or people around them

  • Causes horror, terror, and helplessness when it occurs

Statistics² show that between 39 and 85% of children witness community violence. Meanwhile, 25–43% of children are exposed to sexual abuse.

Race, ethnicity, and family income significantly affect a child's risk of trauma exposure. For example, kids who live in poverty are at a higher risk of facing violence and experiencing traumatic losses.

The immediate effects of childhood trauma include:

  • Anxiety

  • Sadness

  • Fear

  • Nightmares

  • Losing interest in favorite activities

  • Poor grades in school

  • Anger

Many children who face a traumatic event return to normal after some time, especially if they receive the proper support. However, some children, such as those who face regular trauma, carry the effects into adulthood.

PTSD

After a traumatic event, some children can develop PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Factors that increase the chance of a child developing this disorder include trauma severity, the child's closeness to the event, and how the parents or loved ones react to the event.

While PTSD goes away with time for many children, it can last a lifetime for others. If left untreated, post-traumatic stress disorder can cause problems for people in adulthood.

Types of childhood trauma

To experience trauma, a child doesn't always have to be in physical danger. They may suffer emotional and mental consequences simply by witnessing a traumatic event.

The common types of childhood trauma include:

  • Bullying – when people around a child try to inflict physical or emotional trauma simply because the child is weaker

  • Community violence – intentional acts of violence that occur in public places (The victim of violence doesn't necessarily have to be someone a child knows. The trauma can occur anyway.)

  • Multiple trauma – happens when a child is continuously exposed to traumatic events (Common examples are regular abuse episodes in the family and can include domestic violence that doesn't involve physically abusing the child.)

  • Natural disasters – earthquakes, fires, tornadoes, and other natural disasters that cause damage and affect a child's way of life 

  • Domestic violence – when a child's parents or other family members inflict violence on each other when the child is present

  • Medical trauma – when a child faces pain or another type of suffering during medical treatment

  • Physical abuse – when a parent, a caregiver, or another adult intentionally hurts the child 

  • Sexual abuse – when an adult forces sexual acts on a child

  • Traumatic loss – when a child loses a family member, a loved one, or another person who has an influence on their life

  • Terrorism and war – when a child witness acts of terrorism and war that include shootings, bombings, and any other violence

All of these traumatic events warrant immediate professional assistance. Unfortunately, many children don't get enough attention after experiencing trauma, which causes them to face side effects in adulthood.

Studies³ show that childhood trauma negatively affects a person's biological stress systems, cognitive development, and brain development. Only 22% of children develop resilience as a result of experiencing childhood trauma.

What are the signs of childhood trauma in adults?

People tend to learn how to cope with traumatic stress as time passes. However, if left untreated, these traumas manifest themselves in different ways. The symptoms of childhood trauma in adults fall into three categories.

Emotional signs

People who experience trauma as children may have trouble displaying appropriate emotional responses to external stimuli, meaning they don't know how to react to experiences. For example, these adults could get too emotional, angry, or scared about something another person would handle calmly.

Emotional consequences of childhood trauma also prevent adults from forming healthy relationships. They may:

  • Avoid relationships due to the fear of abandonment

  • Develop problems with intimacy

  • Have issues with attachment (for example, taking on a parental role in a marriage)

These people are also more likely to experience anger, anxiety, emotional outbursts, panic attacks, and depression.

Physical signs

People who face traumatic events in childhood could experience physical consequences. The sudden or continuous outbursts of stress hormones can increase the risk of developing conditions such as:

  • Heart disease

  • Cancer

  • Respiratory disorders

  • Cirrhosis of the liver

  • Diabetes

  • Obesity

Stress can affect a person's immune system, making them more susceptible to diseases in adulthood.

Another common physical symptom of childhood trauma is memory disruption. The event experienced in childhood can be so traumatic that the adult memory "erases" it. While a person can't remember the trauma, the body can still feel the effect.  

Memory loss associated with childhood trauma doesn't just affect memories related to the event. It can also cause other childhood memories to fade or disappear.

Substance abuse

Adults who experience trauma as children may have difficulty managing stressful situations. To cope, they could turn to substance abuse. This can include overeating, drinking alcohol, or taking drugs.

Substances can help these people deal with stress that triggers an inadequate emotional response to various events. Some people also develop behavioral addictions such as compulsive eating or erratic sexual behavior.

A study⁴ found that substance use in adulthood is closely related to child abuse. Out of 2,014 participants who were substance users, 95% had at least one traumatic event in their childhood.

More than a third of the participants were exposed to moderate-to-severe child abuse. The most common traumatic event for this group was a serious accident/injury or domestic violence.

Symptoms of childhood trauma in adulthood

When traumatized children grow up, they may not fully understand why they behave and feel differently from other adults. It could take a while for a person to figure out that a traumatic event is at fault, especially if the memory suppresses it.

The key childhood trauma symptoms in adulthood include:

  • Excessive emotional reactions. These reactions can happen if something reminds your subconscious of the circumstances surrounding the trauma.

  • Anxiety attacks. Childhood trauma is a direct risk factor for developing anxiety in adulthood. If no other reasons are forthcoming, you may want to work with a therapist to determine whether you are suppressing memories.

  • Mood swings. People who experience trauma in childhood may be overwhelmed with emotions or feel completely indifferent to surrounding events.

  • Triggers. Certain places smell and sounds could make a person with a childhood trauma feel uncomfortable because they remind the subconscious of the traumatic event.

  • Chronic pain. Chronic pain is another possible consequence of childhood traumas. If your doctor can't find a reason for chronic pain, you may want to discuss the possibility of a traumatic event causing it.

All the above symptoms may signal several mental health conditions that need addressing professionally. However, if your doctor is having trouble identifying the problem, they may suggest that childhood trauma is responsible, even if you don't remember it happening.

How to cope with childhood trauma in adulthood

Even if you didn't get any help for the consequences of childhood trauma when you were a kid, it's not too late. Realizing that a traumatic event may be responsible for your symptoms is a huge step toward improving your quality of life.

The first thing to do is speak to your doctor. They can evaluate your condition and refer you to a psychologist, a psychiatrist, or a therapist. These specialists can determine the best course of treatment. There are several treatment options available.

Cognitive processing therapy (CPT)

Cognitive processing therapy⁵ is a type of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). During these therapy sessions, you can learn how to identify, evaluate, and change negative thoughts related to childhood trauma.

If you can change how your thoughts work, you can change how you feel. You gain skills that help you handle thoughts that upset you.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)

EMDR is a type of psychotherapy that helps adults recover from childhood trauma by activating the brain's natural healing process. It works by diverting your attention through eye movements to help your brain reprocess trauma.

In short, you teach your brain how to reduce the intense emotional response to negative experiences. This therapy helps you rediscover adequate reactions to triggers and stressors.

Narrative exposure therapy (NET)

Narrative exposure therapy is the process of regaining the memory of a traumatic event and contextualizing it. A therapist guides you to remember all the details of your life story to create a coherent narrative.

Once you can put your trauma into a context, it becomes easier to understand your current symptoms and deal with them. It's especially useful when people believe a traumatic event was their fault.

Exposure therapy

Exposure therapy works by helping the person face their fears. By facing a fear related to your childhood trauma, you can understand how to deal with it. Exposure can occur in real life, virtual reality, or even your imagination.

The therapist paces and mediates the exposure to help you gain control over your fears and overcome the trauma.

If you are having related physical problems, such as chronic pain or other health conditions, it's also important to address them. Your doctor may recommend starting a healthy lifestyle, kicking bad habits, and engaging in alternative supporting treatments, such as yoga or meditation.

The lowdown

Childhood trauma can affect how you think, feel, and act as an adult. Some symptoms manifest as mental health disorders, physical pain, chronic conditions, behavioral problems, and more.

It's possible to face childhood trauma and heal it as an adult.

Consider speaking to your doctor about therapy options if you've experienced a traumatic childhood event.

Some people suppress memories of childhood traumas. So, if you have unexplained symptoms, consider sharing the possibility of trauma with your doctor.

Have you considered clinical trials for Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

Joining community groups and exercise programs for my condition made me feel empowered – but I want to be part of finding a cure.
Peter, 64

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