Blog Mental Health Trauma 12 Signs of Childhood Trauma in Adults

12 Signs of Childhood Trauma in Adults

Children don’t know how to interpret the world, so when they feel intense fear, confusion, or pain, they take this to mean that something must be fundamentally wrong with them.

As they grow up, they internalize these beliefs, interpreting their experiences through a lens of inadequacy and fear. These internalized beliefs shape their behavior, emotions, and relationships in adulthood.

As an adult, you may not consciously remember any traumatic events from your childhood, but they are implicitly encoded in your psyche and do affect your development and experiences as an adult (11).

For example, the way you respond to stress, form relationships, or view yourself may be rooted in these early traumatic experiences.

Knowing the signs of childhood trauma in adults is the first step toward understanding, healing, and reclaiming your life and full potential.

What Does Unhealed Childhood Trauma Look Like?

The effects of childhood trauma in adulthood range from personal–where you’re unable to function well or establish a stable relationship–to societal, which manifests in an increased vulnerability to mental wellness challenges in a large number of people.

Here are some examples of childhood trauma in adults:

1. Difficulty Regulating Emotions

Individuals who have experienced childhood trauma may struggle to regulate their emotions, particularly when it comes to negative ones such as anger, sadness, and fear. They may also have a heightened response to certain triggers or feel overwhelmed and unable to cope in stressful situations (3). 

Emotional dysregulation as a result of trauma means that you are unable to tolerate or manage your negative emotions effectively. 

See also
How to Cope with Childhood Trauma as an Adult

2. Self-Blame

Children often blame themselves for the traumatic events they experience. In childhood, we cannot recognize a bad environment, so we conclude that there’s something wrong with us when things do not go well. 

As adults, this self-blame can manifest in persistent, but often subtle, feelings of guilt and shame (6), as well as distress, and low self-esteem.

3. Trust Issues

Trust is a crucial part of healthy relationships, but for those who have experienced childhood trauma, it can be difficult to trust others. They may have difficulty forming deep connections with others or constantly fear being hurt or betrayed (4). 

If you wish to reach into the deep crevices of your mind, take yourself out of the mental loop, regain balance, infuse yourself with optimism, and cultivate compassion – BetterMe: Meditation & Sleep app is exactly what you need!

4. Difficulty Setting Boundaries

Boundaries are essential for healthy relationships, but those who have experienced childhood trauma may struggle to set and maintain boundaries (20). They may fear rejection or abandonment if they say no or have difficulty recognizing when their boundaries are being crossed.

5. People-Pleasing Behavior

As children, people may have had to please their caregivers to receive love and approval. In adulthood, this can manifest as people-pleasing behavior, where they prioritize the needs and wants of others over their own to maintain a sense of safety and acceptance.

See also
Do I Have Childhood Trauma?

6. Addictions or Destructive Coping Mechanisms

Unhealed childhood trauma can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance abuse, gambling, or self-harm (25). Some of these coping mechanisms are adopted to cope with intense emotional dysregulation of the nervous system. These behaviors may provide temporary relief but can ultimately worsen the long-term effects of trauma. 

At their core, most unhealthy coping mechanisms are a form of avoiding the suppressed emotional pain that resulted from neglect, unmet needs, and various forms of abuse.

signs of childhood trauma in adults  

8. Difficulty Expressing Vulnerability

Children who have experienced trauma may have learned to suppress their emotions as a means of coping with overwhelming experiences (25). 

As adults, this can make it difficult to express vulnerability and open up to others, which can lead to difficulties forming intimate relationships. It is not that they do not want to open up to others about their emotions, but sometimes they cannot even identify what they feel in the first place. 

The disconnection from their bodies, sensations, and emotions makes it difficult for them to communicate how they feel to other people because they cannot even communicate this to themselves. 

9. Intense Fear of Abandonment

Children who have experienced trauma may fear abandonment by their caregivers, and this fear can be carried into adulthood. It may manifest as unhealthy attachment styles or a constant need for reassurance and validation in relationships (18).

A traumatized child’s reaction will be based on their attachment style. Their response will vary depending on whether they are anxiously attached or avoidantly attached.

See also
What Childhood Trauma Do I Have?

Avoidantly attached people are more afraid of intimacy than they are of abandonment.

Anxiously attached adults may be unconsciously terrified of feeling the pain of abandonment again. In some cases, this overwhelming feeling of abandonment prevents adults from pursuing relationships. 

Read more: What Childhood Trauma Do I Have?

10. Perfectionism

Perfectionism can be a coping mechanism for childhood trauma (1), as it provides a sense of control in a chaotic world. 

However, it can also lead to excessive self-criticism and unrealistic expectations, which creates additional stress and worry. It can manifest as a fear of failure, an intense need for control, or difficulty accepting mistakes and imperfections. Perfectionism demands a lot of cognitive energy from someone, which is why sometimes they feel more tired than it is normal. 

11. Avoidance of Triggers

People who have experienced trauma may avoid situations, places, or people that remind them of their past traumatic experiences. This avoidance can severely limit their daily lives and hamper their ability to form new relationships or try new things.

In some cases, the signs of childhood trauma in adults can be so overwhelming that when they encounter a trigger, they may experience flashbacks and nightmares (25).

12. Emotional Numbness

As a response to overwhelming trauma, some individuals may shut down emotionally and become detached from their feelings. 

Signs of repressed childhood trauma in adults may manifest as a lack of emotional response, a disconnection from one’s emotions, or the inability to connect with others on an emotional level (23).

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

How Can Childhood Trauma Be Addressed in Adults?

Treating childhood trauma in adults can be a long and challenging process, but it is possible to heal and overcome its effects. 

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

Here are some common treatments:

Therapy

Therapy is often the first line of treatment for adult survivors of childhood trauma. Various types of therapy can help, such as talk therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) (24).

However, an efficient trauma therapy intervention should also include a form of somatic and bodywork to address the physiological effects of trauma. Somatic Experiencing (SE) and the Neuro Effective Relational Model (NARM) are great approaches to working with complex trauma. 

Self-Care Practices

Self-care practices can play a significant role in coping with childhood trauma. You should engage in activities such as (13):

  • Mindfulness and meditation: This can help you connect with your emotions and gain a sense of control over your thoughts.
  • Exercise: This can release endorphins, which can improve mood and reduce stress levels.
  • Journaling or creative expression: This can help you process and express your emotions in a healthy way.
  • Connecting with supportive friends and family: This can provide a sense of safety and belonging.
  • Seeking support from fellow survivors or joining a support group: This can provide validation, understanding, and community.

Creating Safety

For many individuals with trauma, creating a sense of safety is an essential part of the healing process (7). This may involve setting boundaries, practicing self-care, and learning to identify and avoid triggers.

See also
How To Deal With Childhood Trauma as an Adult

Our blog on Somatic Techniques is a great resource to help you learn more about creating a sense of safety in the body.

Healing the Inner Child

Childhood trauma can also impact your relationship with your inner child. Through therapy and self-exploration, you can learn to heal your inner child by practicing mindfulness and dismantling the barriers of the trauma (14).

If you’ve dipped your toes in meditation before but couldn’t sit through a session because of all the thoughts buzzing in your head, impulses snatching away control or all the overwhelming feelings that start bubbling up the minute you sink into the silence, it’s only because you didn’t have the right guidance. Start using BetterMe: Meditation & Sleep app and watch your life transform!

signs of childhood trauma in adults  

FAQs

  • How do I know if I experienced childhood trauma?

The signs of childhood trauma in adulthood can manifest in a variety of ways, such as worry, eating issues, difficulties in relationships, and others (2). 

You may also have recurring nightmares or flashbacks relating to past events. Sometimes, a trigger in your adult life can awaken memories of childhood trauma.

  • How do you uncover repressed childhood trauma?

Uncovering repressed childhood trauma often requires professional help. 

Therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma-focused therapy can help in this process (8) (21) (22). In some cases, certain triggers or life events may bring repressed memories to the surface.

  • Can adults recover from childhood trauma?

Yes, adults can recover from childhood trauma, but it often requires a long and challenging process. Therapies such as individual psychotherapy, group therapy, and trauma-informed therapies can be effective. 

Self-care practices, such as mindfulness, relaxation techniques, regular exercise, and maintaining a support network can also play a crucial role in recovery. In some cases, medication may be prescribed for the management of signs associated with trauma.

The Bottom Line

The effects of childhood trauma in adults are far-reaching and complex. It takes courage and dedication to confront and heal from past traumas, but it is possible to reclaim your life and create a healthier, happier future for yourself.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with the effects of childhood trauma, professional help is a valuable step toward healing and growth. You must remember that you are not defined by your traumatic experiences, and there is hope for a brighter tomorrow. 

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 and multidimensional perfectionism in young adults (2009, sciencedirect.com) 
  2. Childhood Interpersonal Trauma and its Repercussions in Adulthood: An Analysis of Psychological and Interpersonal Sequelae (2016, intechopen.com)
  3. Childhood Maltreatment, Emotional Dysregulation, and Psychiatric Comorbidities (2014, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  4. Childhood maltreatment is associated with distrust and negatively biased emotion processing (biomedcentral.com)
  5. Childhood Trauma and Chronic Illness in Adulthood: Mental Health and Socioeconomic Status as Explanatory Factors and Buffers (2011, frontiersin.org)
  6. Childhood trauma and the role of self-blame on psychological wellbeing. (2019, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  7. Clinical Issues Across Services – Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services (2014, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  8. Cognitive behavioral therapy for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder: a review (2011, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  9. Complex posttraumatic stress disorder: The need to consolidate a distinct clinical syndrome or to reevaluate features of psychiatric disorders following interpersonal trauma? (2018, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  10. Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD) as an Independent Diagnosis: Differences in Hedonic and Eudaimonic Well-Being between CPTSD and PTSD (2023, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov) s
  11. Consequences of Child Abuse and Neglect (2014, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov) m
  12. Cumulative Childhood Stress and Autoimmune Diseases in Adults (2009, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  13. Emotional Wellness Toolkit | National Institutes of Health (NIH) (2022, nih.gov) u
  14. Healing the Child Within (2011, mindful.org)
  15. Neurobiological Development in the Context of Childhood Trauma (2017, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  16. Pharmacotherapy for survivors of childhood trauma (2002, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  17. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (2023, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  18. Psychobiology of Attachment and Trauma—Some General Remarks From a Clinical Perspective (2019, frontiersin.org)
  19. Somatic and Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms in Children and Adolescents in France (2024, jamanetwork.com)
  20. The Importance of Setting Boundaries as an Adult Survivor of Child Abuse | EndCAN (2023, endcan.org)
  21. The Role of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy in Medicine: Addressing the Psychological and Physical Symptoms Stemming from Adverse Life Experiences (2014, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  22. Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Traumatized Children and Families (2015, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  23. Trauma-related dissociation and altered states of consciousness: a call for clinical, treatment, and neuroscience research (2015, tandfonline.com)
  24. Trauma-Specific Services – Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services (2014, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  25. Understanding the Impact of Trauma – Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services (2014, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)

 

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