Blog Mental Health Trauma The Effects of Childhood Trauma in Adulthood: Understanding the Long-Term Consequences

The Effects of Childhood Trauma in Adulthood: Understanding the Long-Term Consequences

Just Why Is Childhood Trauma So Damaging? 

Childhood trauma is an unfortunate fact of life for many children and its effects can cast a long shadow over adulthood. According to SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), by the age of 16, two-thirds of children have experienced some traumatic event, such as the death of a parent, physical or sexual abuse, neglect, or a natural disaster (19)

According to the CDC, in the United States alone, 64% of adults have gone through at least one traumatic incident by the time they turn 18, and 1 in 6 have experienced four or more different kinds of events (9). According to research, trauma or adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are more common among minorities and people who are assigned female at birth (1). 

Here are some common (ACEs) that affect children: 

  • Physical or emotional abuse
  • Parental death
  • Living through a natural disaster or war
  • Living with a parent who has substance abuse issues
  • Neglect
  • Sexual victimization
  • Witnessing domestic abuse
  • Physical illness 

How Does Childhoodx Trauma Impact You as an Adult?

Just why childhood trauma is so damaging isn’t that difficult to figure out. Children are vulnerable and have yet to develop the kinds of defense mechanisms adults have developed to help them cope with stress. Anything that impacts us when we’re young and impressionable can cast a profound shadow over the rest of our lives. Children who experience ACEs are more at risk for addiction and both lifelong physical and mental health problems (19)

Experiencing trauma as a child can leave lasting scars on bodies and minds. Trauma can negatively impact brain development and the human stress response. Children who grow up in toxic environments may also have problems with social interaction and cognitive development (1, 4).

See also
How To Deal With Childhood Trauma as an Adult

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Childhood Trauma Affects Four Main Areas of Life  

Physical Health

Growing up in a home where you’re abused or neglected can leave you at risk of health issues for the rest of your life. Adults who grew up in traumatic circumstances experience higher rates of health-related issues (17). 

In addition, adults who experienced childhood trauma are more likely to make poor choices regarding diet and exercise. They’re more likely to smoke, be severely obese, and be sedentary. The more incidences of ACEs that an individual reported, the more health problems they had (15).

Mental Health

Mental health issues are common among people who grew up in traumatic or chaotic homes. 

If you have any mental health condition, please consult a mental health specialist.

Childhood abuse and neglect is a prominent feature in the development of Borderline Personality Disorder, a severe mental health condition that is characterized by mood swings, self-destructive behavior, suicidal ideation, troubled personal relationships, and job instability. ACEs also increase the risk of bipolar and other mood disorders (18)

effects of childhood trauma in adulthood  

Cognitive Development 

Mental health issues, can occur from childhood trauma and are often linked with cognitive deficits. According to research using animals as models, chronic stress early in life profoundly impacts the brain at a structural level. Children who are exposed to trauma have memory impairments that may be connected to loss of volume in the hippocampus, which is associated with memory formation and learning. The hippocampus can shrink due to prolonged exposure to cortisol, which increases due to stress (2). 

See also
What Childhood Trauma Do I Have?

In one study, adults who had gone through childhood trauma showed defects in spatial and pattern recognition memory and lower academic achievement. Interestingly, these results were obtained in a sample that didn’t have significant mental health or addiction issues (2).

Abused children often show delays in speech and language development. For example, one symptom of trauma is hypervigilance. Children who grow up in chaotic homes are often on high alert and they may experience flashbacks of their trauma. This makes it difficult to pay attention in class and can impair their school performance. Traumatized children are also more likely to act out in school and exhibit more problems with anger management and defiance, which leads to more expulsions and lower grades. As adults, they can have more trouble with decision-making and processing information than those who weren’t traumatized (10, 5)

Read more: Somatic Healing Techniques: A Holistic Approach to Physical and Emotional Recovery

Social Development

Childhood trauma can significantly impair social development. If your home life is chaotic, and your parents are preoccupied with their own problems, whether it is addiction or struggling to survive poverty, they probably aren’t going to be at their best. Children who grow up in these kinds of environments often feel unsafe, alone, and overwhelmed, which leads to chronic activation of the nervous system (17).

In addition, childhood trauma can negatively impact a child’s ability to bond with a caregiver. The foundation for adult relationships is developed in childhood and hinges on how well a child can attach to his parents (14).

Most children who grow up in loving, stable families develop a secure attachment style with their caregivers. However, children whose early years are marred by ACEs and unreliable or abusive parents may develop less adaptive attachment styles such as insecure or avoidant attachment. Both attachment styles stem from unsatisfying and unreliable caregivers. 

See also
Do I Have Childhood Trauma?

People who have experienced childhood trauma may crave intimacy, but they don’t trust that their needs will be met. This carries over into their adult relationships. Adults who have been through childhood trauma can exhibit unhealthy behaviors such as being overly clingy or too distant toward their partners. Other maladaptive behaviors are poor boundaries, jealousy, the need for constant reassurance from a partner, an inability to show emotions or affection, poor emotional regulation, and manipulation (14, 7). 

effects of childhood trauma in adulthood  

Coping With Childhood Trauma 

If you experienced trauma as a child, there are treatments available that can help you cope more effectively with what you’ve experienced. Some popular approaches are: 

Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT)

This form of approach attempts to help victims of childhood trauma understand the connection between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Typically, the strong emotions that occur with trauma don’t occur for no reason; there is a mental component to emotional distress. For example, our emotions are often triggered by automatic thoughts that we aren’t aware of and usually don’t question. These thoughts can be unhelpful, illogical, and distorted.

People who have gone through trauma can be easily triggered and can overreact to neutral events. For example, an adult who was verbally abused as a child may put themselves down when receiving an unfavorable review from their employer. They can take this review as a real attack on their self-esteem. However, by becoming aware of their tendency to overreact and questioning their assumptions, they can reduce their emotional distress (6).

A cognitive behavioral specialist typically has a client write his thoughts in a thought log. The idea is that by looking at these maladaptive thoughts with a critical eye and learning to spot the distortion, the client can shift into more effective coping thoughts.

See also
Efficient Methods to Address Childhood Trauma 

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Somatic Therapy

While cognitive behavioral therapy is a top-down approach to dealing with childhood trauma in adults, somatic therapy is a bottom-up form of treatment. CBT works with the mind, while somatic practices work with the body. 

If you have any mental health condition, please consult a mental health specialist.

The premise behind somatic practice is that trauma exists at a cellular level in our bodies. Emotions are not just physical events, they’re mental as well. When we experience an emotion, we experience certain physical sensations. For example, anxiety is often accompanied by such bodily sensations as butterflies in the stomach, tense muscles, or a pounding heart. Somatic therapists help their clients get in touch with their bodies using a variety of modalities, including breathwork, dance, and even hypnosis. Somehow argued that yoga and meditation are both types of somatic practices (20).

Peter Levine introduced the concept of somatic experiencing in the 1970s. According to his theory, when an animal feels threatened, its central nervous system is activated and it has three possible responses: fight, flight, or freeze. Levine believes that victims of trauma get stuck in a maladaptive freeze response. And the goal of somatic experiencing is to get them unstuck and better able to direct their energies (16).

See also
How To Deal With Childhood Trauma as an Adult

Meditation and Mindfulness

Mindfulness originated in Buddhist meditation, and it has been utilized to treat a variety of mental health issues, including trauma. During mindfulness, you immerse yourself in the present moment, focus on the breath, and bring the mind back to your breath if it wanders. It is a present-based, non-judgmental way of dealing with some of the negative thoughts and feelings that are associated with trauma. 

People who have gone through childhood trauma often experience a range of uncomfortable symptoms such as worry and hypervigilance. While practicing mindfulness, the meditator is encouraged to observe their emotions and experience them in a non-judgmental way. Instead of actively trying to eliminate disturbing feelings, the goal is to simply observe what comes up and be okay with it. Mindfulness promotes acceptance and awareness of trauma, which has been found to reduce symptoms such as avoidance, flashbacks, and hyperarousal (13)

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a mental health program that is composed of structured 8-week, twice-weekly sessions. It has been shown to significantly alleviate emotional discomfort in adults who have experienced childhood trauma. In one study of 50 female participants who had experienced ACEs, mindfulness was associated with a reduction in emotional dysregulation after attending a MBSR program (12).

Read more: Somatic Dance: Liberation through Expression and Movement

effects of childhood trauma in adulthood  

FAQs

  • At what age is childhood trauma the most impactful?

The idea that there are sensitive periods in childhood when ACEs are more impactful is a source of controversy among scientists. Some studies have found higher rates of signs of childhood trauma in adults who experienced ACEs before age 5, while other studies have not found this association. Instead, research has found multiple sensitive periods in development including before ages 12 and age 17 (11).

  • Does childhood trauma age you?

Research has found that experiencing significant stress during childhood, whether from abuse, neglect, or loss, can age you faster on a cellular level. For example, stress can shorten our telomeres, the protein caps at the end of chromosomes. Short telomeres accelerate aging, while long telomeres slow it down. Some studies have found that children who have gone through certain ACEs have shorter telomeres and earlier puberty. They’re also more likely to have thinning in areas of the cortex (3)

  • Does childhood trauma ever go away?

The ability to heal from childhood trauma is a very individual thing and will depend on an individual’s age at its occurrence, the severity of the experience, and their willingness to seek help. While not everybody will fully heal from trauma, there’s hope. Human beings are an incredibly resilient species. And many people who have gone through tragic childhood experiences have gone on to live fulfilling lives.  

A critical part of healing for many people is finding effective therapy with a trained professional and adequate support. There are multiple treatments that are designed for individuals who have suffered from childhood trauma.

The Bottom Line

Childhood trauma is a common occurrence that has a profound impact on many aspects of a person’s life, including their physical and mental health and cognitive and social development. If you went through traumatic experiences as a child, you’re not alone, there are trauma-focused approaches that can help you improve the quality of your life. 

DISCLAIMER:

This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!

SOURCES 

  1. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) (2023, cdc.gov)
  2. Association of childhood trauma with cognitive function in healthy adults: a pilot study (2010, bmcneurol.biomedcentral.com)
  3. Can Childhood Trauma Make the Body and Brain Age Faster? (2020, psychologytoday.com)
  4. Childhood Trauma, Social Networks, and the Mental Health of Adult Survivors (2017, journals.sagepub.com)
  5. Childhood Trauma is Associated with Poorer Cognitive Performance in Older Adults (2020, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  6. Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) (2017, apa.org)
  7. Coping With an Insecure Attachment Style (2022, verywellmind.com)
  8. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy (2017, apa.org)
  9. Fast Facts: Preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences (2023, cdc.gov)
  10. How Trauma Impacts School Performance (n.d., mhanational.org)
  11. Is developmental timing of trauma exposure associated with depressive and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in adulthood? (2016, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  12. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction to Enhance Psychological Functioning and Improve Inflammatory Biomarkers in Trauma-Exposed Women: A Pilot Study (2015, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  13. Mindfulness-based treatments for posttraumatic stress disorder: a review of the treatment literature and neurobiological evidence (2018, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  14. Psychobiology of Attachment and Trauma—Some General Remarks From a Clinical Perspective (2019, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  15. Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults (1998, ajpmonline.org)
  16. Somatic Therapy (2022, psychologytoday.com)
  17. The Impact of Childhood Trauma on Adult Functioning (2023, psychologytoday.com)
  18. The Role of Trauma in Early Onset Borderline Personality Disorder: A Biopsychosocial Perspective (2021, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  19. Understanding Child Trauma (2023, samhsa.gov)
  20. What is somatic therapy? (2023, health.harvard.edu)
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