Warning: This blog post may contain sensitive information to some readers, such as topics in physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. It is not intended to diagnose or serve as a solution to dealing with the effects of childhood trauma. Please view this as informational, and reach out to a mental health professional if you are in need of help.
Table of Contents
- What is childhood trauma?
- ACE study
- Risk factors for childhood trauma
- What does childhood trauma look like in adults
- Ways childhood trauma affects adult relationships
- Recognizing how the symptoms of childhood trauma affect you
- Healing from childhood trauma as an adult
What is childhood trauma?
Childhood trauma refers to an event witnessed or experienced during childhood (under 18) that threatened the physical or emotional safety of the child. Throughout our youth, we develop attachment bonds to those close to us and, in return, expect them to keep us safe. When this integrity of compromised by an experience, children may experience strong physical and emotional reactions that can persist into adulthood.
Prolonged trauma, as in an event that occurs multiple times or a string of occurrences over time, can cause child traumatic stress. Without any mental health intervention, brain development can be affected, making way for unhealthy coping skills, delays, and issues with learning.
Trauma is relative.
As you read the rest of this blog, it’s important to remember that trauma is different for everyone. The experience and response combine age, type of event, stage of development, how often the event occurred, and how people surrounding the child responded.
For that reason, something that is considered traumatic for one person may not be for another. That is okay. By understanding childhood trauma, you can be one step closer to healing your inner child.
The ACE Study- Adverse Childhood Experiences
From 1995 to 1997, a study conducted at Kaiser Permanente in Southern California gathered information from over 17,000 adults about their childhood and experiences. The research wanted to discover a correlation between childhood trauma and the likelihood of long-term effects. It’s called the ACE-Kaiser Study, which stands for adverse childhood experiences.
The following bullet points show the categories for which the study gathered the information, identified as “adverse childhood experiences,”:
- Physical abuse
- A parent, guardian, or household member punched, slapped, threw objects, or pushed a child to the point of injury.
- Emotional abuse
- A parent, guardian, or household member degraded a child with insulting names, putting them down or even making them afraid for their physical safety.
- Sexual abuse
- Any person (parent, relative, family friend, guardian, etc.) who inappropriately touched the child in a sexual way
- Domestic violence
- Children who witnessed a parent abuse another parent emotionally or physically.
- Substance abuse
- Children who witnessed a parent, guardian, or household member wrongfully use substances like alcohol and drugs.
- Mental illness
- Children who live with a family or household member who is mentally ill or has attempted or did commit suicide.
- Parents who separated or divorced
- A parent or household member who was incarcerated (in prison)
- Emotional neglect
- A parent, guardian, or household member who spoke down to, belittled or ignored the child to the point where the family was not considered a form of support.
- Physical neglect
- There was not a guardian to properly take care of the child, not enough food or resources, dirty clothes, or a parent/guardian was too intoxicated to take care of them.
Risk factors for a higher ACE score:
(Find the complete list on the CDC’s website)
- Children with special needs
- Children who are not close to their parents or caregiver
- Children who engaged in dating and sexual activity at a young age
- Families with single parents
- Families with low income
- Caregivers who used physical interventions for punishment (example: spanking)
- Families with poor communication
- Communities that have high rates of violence & crime
- Communities with high poverty rates
- Communities with high rates of alcohol and drug use
- Communities with unstable housing
- Communities with less food security (example: high rates of families on SNAP)
The study found that ACE (adverse childhood experiences) scores were common across all populations. Nearly two-thirds of participants had at least one ACE, while more than one in five (over 20%) reported over three ACE’s.
Certain populations were more likely to experience ACE’s, depending on social and economic conditions.
Lastly, the study did find a relationship between the amount of ACE’s and poor health and wellbeing outcomes in adulthood. The more childhood trauma one has experienced, the more likely they will experience prolonged effects into adulthood, such as mental illness, disease, and illness.
Other risk factors for childhood trauma
In addition to the social and economic factors that can put a child at risk for adverse childhood experiences, here are other factors that play a significant role in how severe the trauma is to the child:
- How close was the child to the event?
- Did they witness it firsthand, hear it, see it, etc.?
- Age of the child
- Were they an infant, toddler, in elementary school, high school, etc.?
- How severe was the event?
- Were the police or child protective services involved? Was someone hurt? Did anyone have to go to the hospital? Did someone die?
- Reactions from caregivers
- How did the caregiver or parent respond to the event? Did they believe the child? Depending on what age the event occurred, symptoms will manifest differently.
- How often was the child exposed to traumatic events?
- Available resources
- Example: Was the family able to access help, should they need it?
What does childhood trauma look like in adults?
The effects of childhood trauma and traumatic stress can appear in many different forms as an adult. It affects a child’s sense of self, creating an unstable self-image. Remember that this is not an exhaustive list, and someone who’s experienced trauma might not have all of these symptoms. Additionally, trauma may not be the only contributing factor.
- Shame & guilt
- Low self-esteem, poor body image
- Withdrawl/Feeling disconnected from those around you
- Poor emotion management
- Flashbacks of the event (PTSD)
- Panic attacks
- Stemming from fear of trusting others
- Fear of relationships
- Often also having trouble with sharing emotions and getting close with others.
- Abandonment issues/fear of abandonment
- This can cause adults to be clingy to those close to them in fear of leaving. The “inner child” seeks validation and may take extensive measures to avoid abandonment.
- Sensitivity to moods of others
- Increased likelihood of substance abuse
- Increased likelihood of smoking
- Increased likelihood of engaging in unsafe sexual behavior
- Increased risk of chronic health issues such as cancer or heart disease
Ways that childhood trauma affects adult relationships
One of the main ways the lingering effects of childhood trauma surface in adulthood is through relationships, often romantic, although friend, family, and work relationships can also be affected. Recognizing potential symptoms can help you facilitate healthy relationships moving forward.
- Fear of abandonment
- Sometimes this even results in remaining in a relationship even after it should have ended.
- Overly-critical of partner
- Turning inward in times of stress
- Increased alone time
- Uneven financial responsibilities
- An adult may not accept financial assistance from others due to trust issues stemming from childhood, or they may be overly dependent on their partner.
- Excess fighting/arguing OR avoiding conflict altogether
- Poor conflict management/communication
- Fear of commitment
- Wishes to “change” their partner
Recognizing how the symptoms of childhood trauma affect you
Unfortunately, the lingering effects of trauma work their way into adulthood even if you’ve received therapy or felt as though the issue is resolved. Since our brains are still developing throughout childhood, trauma can directly impact further development, carrying negative symptoms throughout a lifespan.
Trauma impacts our body’s natural stress response, and triggers can easily send a central nervous system into its fight, flight, or freeze response. These triggers are amplified by common mental health diagnoses for victims of childhood trauma such as PTSD, depression, anxiety, suicide, personality disorders, and substance abuse. Prolonged stress to the body in return lowers the immune system and can put adults at risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, chronic pain, and other health problems.
These symptoms, just like trauma itself, are relative to each individual’s experience. That’s why it’s important to listen to your body and mind and make a note of anything that does not feel right.
Healing from childhood trauma as an adult
The process of healing from childhood trauma can be a daunting task. It’s important to know that you are validated in your experience of the event and that you are not alone.
No child is at fault for the trauma they’ve encountered, so giving yourself the necessary grace and patience to heal is of the utmost importance. However, this healing process is not linear and takes dedication to uncover the underlying cause.
A therapist, social worker, or psychologist is trained to help you work through these difficult symptoms and heal from them. Different types of therapy have been clinically shown to help survivors of childhood abuse and trauma positively.
Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT): A form of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) that helps those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It involves trauma processing and skill development to address triggers and learn coping skills.
Somatic therapy focuses on healing the mind-body connection by learning how emotions physically impact our bodies. A therapist will aid in the development of body awareness and identifying triggers.
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR uses eye movements to re-map traumatic memories. This is a type of somatic therapy.
Art therapy provides an outlet for those suffering that does not include words. This is a common intervention for children but has been shown to positively impact adults as well.
Prolonged exposure therapy (PE): A long-term therapy option for trauma survivors that works to overcome avoidance.
Note: There are many types of therapeutic practices that have been shown to positively impact those experiencing the negative effects of childhood trauma. It is best to speak with a mental health professional to determine which type of therapy best suits your needs.
If you have experienced childhood trauma or child traumatic stress, know that you do not have to go through the healing journey alone. If you’re in need of a therapist in Danville or Bloomsburg, PA, or at one of our convenient 15 locations across Eastern PA, Dr. John G. Kuna & Associates has a team of trained professionals who can help you. Contact our office to schedule an appointment today.