What Is Childhood Trauma?
Childhood traumas are unique experiences that took place during one’s early developmental years that can fundamentally shape an individual’s personality or world view. These experiences can induce feelings of fear or stress or can be the result of physical or emotional harm. Because these traumatic experiences occur while the brain is still developing, these experiences can set the framework for an individual’s entire upbringing and mindset. For some, these traumatic experiences can pile with environmental stressors, while others may experience a childhood trauma that happened as an isolated event. Regardless of the ways in which trauma can present itself to a child, the effects of childhood trauma can extend far into adulthood, and even continue to persist for as long as they remain unaddressed. However, while healing childhood trauma in adults is a difficult prospect that requires an individual to confront and challenge their entire preexisting worldview, it is possible to heal childhood trauma and overcome these experiences for a better future.
Types of Childhood Trauma
Childhood trauma can manifest in several unique ways, depending on circumstance. While there are different traumatic experiences that can affect each person, they can all have devastating lasting effects on people even as an adult and are essential to address with the honesty and care that each situation demands.
Physical Abuse: The physical harm of a child, including whipping, shoving, or otherwise intentionally striking children.
Physical Neglect: Failure to provide a child with essential needs, such as sufficient food or shelter from the elements, or housing a child in an environment with various dangerous hazards.
Emotional Abuse: Causing intended emotional distress in a child as a result of verbal insults, gaslighting, berating, or other verbal or emotional putdowns that lead to poor or delayed emotional development.
Emotional Neglect: Dismissing a child’s emotional needs by either ignoring these needs or failing to provide a sufficient emotional outlet by way of coping mechanism, or a hostile environment that does not allow for the emotional expression needed through development.
Sexual Abuse: The forceful engagement in unwanted sexual activity, or the act of exposing children to explicit material to desensitize them to sexual advancements. Sexual abuse can be either the physical touching of a child, or the use of sexually explicit or suggestive conversation.
Loss of a Caregiver: The loss of a caregiver can be a traumatic experience from a young age, whether it be a hired caretaker, biological parent, or assigned guardian.
Separation/Divorce: The separation of parents for whatever reason, whether formally divorced or otherwise physically separated.
Traumatic Disasters: Natural disasters that end in loss, car crashes, fires, or other disasters that occur during development.
Experiencing Violence: Witnessing violence, whether within a community or between parents or family members, as well as being the victim of violence.
Bullying: The physical and verbal harassment of a bully can compromise one’s own physical and emotional safety, as well as hinder one’s development of their self-worth or image.
Symptoms of Childhood Trauma
The effects of childhood trauma can continue to affect a person into adulthood and can manifest in a variety of unique ways. Not everyone will express the symptoms of their childhood trauma in the same way, but it is still crucial to remain informed and vigilant of the various symptoms that can occur as a result of these experiences.
Anxiety and depression are common in those who have experienced trauma of any kind, and an individual who experienced childhood trauma may feel as if their depression or anxiety is their “normal.” Dissociation or detachment from the world, which can manifest as a person feeling emotionally distant, is also common. Childhood trauma can also make it difficult to manage one’s own emotions as an adult, especially if they are a victim of emotional abuse or neglect, leading to mood swings or emotional outbursts of anger or frustration.
Physical symptoms can include a number of aches or pains, and those who were the victim of physical abuse may continue to feel these pains in specific areas correlated with their experience. In children, crying or a delayed physical or emotional development is possible as a result of these traumatic experiences, and nightmares or inconsistent sleep patterns may also be prevalent from a young age.
How Does Childhood Trauma Affect You as an Adult?
The extreme physical and emotional effects of childhood trauma can carry through into adulthood, continuously reframing how an individual develops their worldview and personality. Not only can these traumas lead to developmental complications, but they can also become diagnosed mental health disorders if they are left unaddressed. Some of the ways in which these traumas can affect a person as an adult are:
Anxiety Disorders: The anxiety of past experiences can make the world seem to be a very hostile place, leaving feelings of anxiety to be prevalent through everyday life.
Depression: The feelings of loss or the remnants of physical or emotional abuse can create feelings of perpetual sadness or helplessness that can permeate through each day.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: The effects of trauma can manifest as PTSD, causing an array of physical and emotional hardships including panic, chills, and flashbacks, amongst other symptoms.
Aggressive/Impulsive Behavior: Delayed emotional development can lead to difficulty managing one’s own emotional state, making it possible for emotional outbursts, or leading to reckless behaviors.
Low Self-Esteem/Perpetual Victimization: Victims of childhood trauma may begin to view themselves as victimized by other aspects of their lives, resulting in low self-esteem and building emotional pain, making it difficult to establish meaningful relationships or work towards self-actualization.
Substance Abuse: Some may turn to the use of drugs or alcohol in an attempt to immediately ease the pain of their traumatic experiences, even potentially leading to addiction if unaddressed.
Self-Harm/Suicidal Ideology: The overwhelming emotional or physical pain that can linger into adulthood can lead to feelings of intense desperation, potentially causing thoughts of self-harm or suicide if there are ineffective emotional outlets or the person doesn’t feel supported.
Ways to Begin Healing From Childhood Trauma
The journey to overcoming childhood trauma will be unique for each person, and there is no one, single path to overcome every situation. However, there are steps that a person can take to begin their healing journey.
Acknowledge: The first step towards overcoming these traumatic experiences is acknowledging and accepting that they have happened. This allows an individual to focus on the actions they can take in the present and future, rather than dwell on any retrospective guilt from the past.
Reclaim Control: Taking steps towards agency in one’s own life. This involves being open to new grounding techniques or breathing techniques and is a primary goal of approaches such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and goal-setting.
Take Care of Your Health: Begin creating and adhering to an established hygiene routine, eating schedule, and sleep pattern. Keeping good hygiene and well-balanced nutrition can allow the body to have the energy and focus it needs to move through the difficult healing process, while regular sleeping patterns allow for scheduling sufficient rest for the body and mind.
Acceptance and Letting Go: This is the process of not just acknowledging one’s past trauma, but also then moving forward as to not let this trauma define a person’s identity or emotional state. While that doesn’t mean that an individual will forget about these experiences, it is an expression of agency over the present situation.
Patience: It is important not to rush any kind of recovery, and it is crucial to accept that these traumatic experiences can take a long time to overcome. Childhood traumas can integrate themselves as part of a person’s development, and overcoming them can mean unlearning many of the things that used to define a person as they grew into adults.
Getting Treatment: Treatment is a crucial part of the recovery process, and there truly is no substitute for genuine, trained, professional care in these situations. Overcoming trauma isn’t a question of willpower — trained professionals and proven therapeutic approaches are typically necessary to achieve healing.