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  • Olga Rudin

Understanding the Long-Term Impact of Childhood Trauma on Adults

Updated: Mar 11

In the foreground, there is a sad man with his head down standing in the dark room. In the background, there is a traumatised child sitting in the corner of the room with his legs and arms crossed. There is a text on the image: “Does Childhood Trauma Affect Us in Adulthood?
A childhood trauma can affect our adult life.

Childhood trauma is a global problem with serious, lifelong consequences.

Early childhood trauma is quite widespread. In 2021, about one billion children aged 2–17 will have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or neglect, according to the WHO.


The consequences of child maltreatment can have far-reaching effects. Abused children are frequently more likely to continue the cycle of violence as adults.


The impact of childhood trauma on adult life is huge and it may harm the next generation.

Unfortunately, we can't change the past, so it is important to know the lasting aftereffects of childhood trauma and how to heal them.


What is childhood trauma?


Childhood trauma means going through things as a kid that are too much to handle. These events upset kids and hurt their emotional health. It can be abuse, neglect, or exposure to frightening events.


These experiences leave deep emotional scars that persist into adulthood. They affect how individuals perceive themselves and interact with the world around them.


Unresolved trauma acts as a trigger, causing emotional distress and impacting your daily life. It can affect your self-esteem, confidence, relationships, and even physical health.


Learn about the symptoms of childhood trauma that manifest in adulthood.


Recognising signs and symptoms of childhood trauma in adulthood


Some people who have gone through adverse childhood experiences may feel uncomfortable talking about them. But we can notice some signs that help us understand if someone is struggling with past trauma.


Common signs of childhood trauma manifest in adults


  • Emotional flashbacks: sudden and intense feelings related to past trauma.

  • Avoidance behaviours: trying to escape reminders of the trauma.

  • Hypervigilance: constantly being on edge and alert for potential threats.

  • Difficulty trusting: a challenge to building and maintaining trust in relationships due to past betrayals.

  • Self-destructive patterns: engaging in harmful behaviours to cope with unresolved trauma.

If we pay attention to the signs, we can help someone reduce or prevent the long-term negative effects of untreated trauma.


Exploring trauma effects on adult well-being


A couple sitting on a couch are angrily yelling at each other. Their little daughter who is sitting between them, covers her ears with her hands unable to stop them.
Childhood trauma can affect relationships later in life.

Childhood traumatic events can mess with the overall health, behaviour, belief system, and relationships.


Effects of childhood trauma on mental health


Childhood suffering has profound and lasting effects on adult mental health. Here are some ways childhood trauma can affect you as an adult:


  • Increased risk of depression and anxiety disorders. Childhood trauma can alter brain development and lead to chemical imbalances that make a person more vulnerable to mood disorders later in life.

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD can develop after a traumatic event in childhood and persist into adulthood with symptoms like flashbacks, nightmares, and hypervigilance.

  • Personality disorders. Persistent abuse or neglect as a child may have an adverse influence on personality development. It leads to mental health disorders like borderline personality disorder or dissociative identity disorder in adulthood.

The effects depend on the individual, the type of trauma, and other environmental factors.

Childhood trauma can also affect physical health through the body-mind connection.


Physical health consequences of unresolved childhood trauma


A sick woman is sitting covered with a blanket and sneezing.
Childhood trauma can affect the immune system and make you susceptible to frequent infections.


Here are 5 potential physical conditions trauma can cause in adults:


  • Increased inflammation. Childhood adversity can cause long-term health problems like heart disease and diabetes. 

  • Weak immune system. Toxic stress inhibits the body's immune responses, making one more susceptible to illnesses and infections.

  • Sleep issues. Trauma can disrupt natural sleep cycles, causing problems like insomnia, nightmares, and sleep apnea.

  • Chronic pain. Studies link childhood trauma to an increased incidence of chronic back, muscle, and joint pain in adulthood.

  • Obesity and binge eating. Research shows that people who have experienced negative events during their childhood tend to have higher rates of weight problems in their adult lives.

  • Cancer. A study shows the link between childhood trauma and cancer.

The harmful effects include issues with digestion, breathing difficulties like asthma and stroke, faster ageing of cells, and higher overall chances of sickness and disease.


Childhood traumatic events not only affect mental and physical well-being but may also change behaviours.


Trauma effects on adult behaviours


A man displaying aggressive behaviour while driving his car.
Childhood trauma can cause reckless and aggressive behaviour in adults.

Some adults might show different behaviours that come from their past experiences that happened to them as kids. The behaviours may include:


  • Risky behaviours and impulsivity. Some people who went through traumatic events in childhood may act recklessly, abuse drugs or alcohol, seek out thrills, or act violently. They may do these things as an unhealthy way to cope with their trauma.

  • Avoidance. Trauma can lead to insecure attachment styles that manifest as avoidance of intimacy, distrust of others, isolation, or excessive dependence in adult relationships.

  • Aggressive behaviours. Unaddressed trauma often leads to maladaptive and violent expressions of anger, due to a lack of emotional regulation and coping mechanisms.


Other behavioural effects may include self-harm, perfectionism, avoidance of medical care, poor work performance, and interpersonal conflicts.


Behavioural changes lead to difficulties in relationships.


Impact of childhood trauma on adult relationships


A man with his arms crossed and having trouble sharing his feelings is sitting on a couch next to a woman who is upset and is holding her head with her hands.
Adults with childhood trauma have trouble sharing feelings and controlling emotions.

Adults with childhood PTSD have trouble sharing feelings, controlling emotions, and opening up to others. So, it is hard for them to get close to someone or believe they won't leave them.


Here are some relationship difficulties the survivors experience, often requiring the intervention of a mental health professional:


  • Difficulty trusting others. When trust is broken early in life, it can be hard to rely on others, leading to instability or isolation in relationships.

  • Fear of intimacy and abandonment. Those who experienced neglect or loss in childhood may struggle with deep-seated fears of getting close to others.

  • Difficulty with boundaries. People who grew up with violations of boundaries may struggle with setting healthy boundaries in adulthood, whether they are too rigid or too porous.

  • High-conflict relationships. When someone is used to a certain pattern or way of relating, even if it's dysfunctional or damaging, it can feel normal and comfortable to them. So, they may continue that cycle of behaviour in new relationships instead of breaking out of the unhealthy pattern.


Trauma can impair the ability to manage emotions, leading to outbursts, withdrawal, or numbness in relationships.


Behaviour changes and relationship difficulties can impact a person's beliefs and perception of life.


How unresolved trauma affects the belief system


A frustrated man leaning his head against the table and covering it with an open laptop puzzled by the question mark displayed.
Poor emotional regulation of childhood trauma survivors can lead to a belief “I can’t handle life”

Traumatic events that happen in childhood can impact the belief system, affecting not only how they see themselves but also how they perceive others and the world around them.


  • Trust and Safety: Having bad experiences as a child can make someone think the world is scary and people are dangerous.

  • Worldview and Perception: They may think life is unpredictable, hostile, or untrustworthy. The traumatic event becomes a lens that colours how they interpret things.

  • Coping Mechanisms: Trauma survivors develop coping strategies like being overly alert, avoiding people or situations, or not trusting others. These strategies become unhealthy, ingrained beliefs about staying safe as adults.

  • Self-belief and Worth: Childhood suffering can hurt someone's self-worth. Beliefs like "I'm unlovable" or "I'm flawed" may emerge. These negative self-views affect relationships, careers, and life satisfaction.

  • Emotional Regulation: Trauma alters emotional control. Survivors may struggle with intense emotions. This can lead to beliefs like "I'm broken" or "I can't handle life" that influence their behaviour.

Bad experiences in childhood can affect adult relationships, emotional well-being, and mental health. Addressing emotional scars is essential for healing.


The importance of emotional regulation in healing childhood trauma in adults


Managing emotions is very important in healing from childhood bad experiences, especially physical or sexual abuse. So, survivors need to take a course of therapy that will teach them how to deal with intense feelings and triggers from the past.


There are a variety of therapies suitable for healing emotional scars.


Types of therapy 


Two women, happy from healing childhood trauma, embrace in a psychologist's office.
Seek mental health professional help for healing childhood trauma

When it comes to healing childhood trauma, there are various therapies to consider, such as CBT, EMDR, BWRT, counselling, and others, all important tools in the toolkit of a mental health professional.


Utilising Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for trauma recovery


This type of therapy focuses on addressing the negative thoughts and behaviours stemming from past traumatic experiences in childhood. Here are some key points to consider:


  • Cognitive reframing helps you challenge and change negative thought patterns.

  • Exposure therapy guides you through gradually facing traumatic memories to lessen their impact.

  • Skill-building techniques equip you with coping strategies to manage triggers and stress.

  • Behavioural experiments encourage trying new behaviours to overcome fears and anxieties.

  • Mindfulness practices aid in grounding techniques to stay present and manage overwhelming emotions.

These strategies can support you in processing and healing from the effects of childhood trauma effectively.


Use of EMDR therapy for treating childhood trauma


This therapy stands for Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing. It targets unresolved trauma from the past.


It focuses on specific memories while incorporating bilateral eye movements, taps, or sounds. EMDR helps you reprocess these experiences, lessening their impact on your present life.


Brain Working Recursive Therapy (BWRT)


BWRT focuses on rewiring the brain’s responses to traumatising events, helping individuals heal from unresolved childhood trauma.


Here are some ways BWRT can support you in your journey to healing:


  • Rewiring neuro-pathways connected to trauma by replacing them with a new response.

  • Empowering self-healing: encourages the brain to activate its natural healing processes.

  • Creating lasting change: aims for deep and lasting transformations in how you process trauma.

  • Promoting self-discovery: facilitates understanding and acceptance of past experiences for personal growth.

FAQs


Q: What is PTSD, and how does it relate to childhood trauma?

A: PTSD stands for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a mental health condition that can develop after a person is exposed to a traumatic event. Child abuse or neglect can be a significant factor in the development of PTSD in adults.


Q: How do childhood experiences impact adults in the long term?

A: Adverse childhood experiences can have lasting effects on adults, influencing relationships and their mental and physical well-being.


Q: What are the common signs of trauma in adults who experienced abuse in childhood?

A: Adults may exhibit symptoms such as anxiety, depression, difficulty forming attachments, self-destructive behaviours, and substance abuse.


Q: What is a support system for adults who are trying to heal from traumatic experiences as children?

A: A strong support system may include friends, family, therapists, or support groups. That plays a crucial role in helping adults heal and navigate their emotional recovery.


Q: What are some effective mental health services for adults with a history of childhood trauma?

Mental health services such as therapy, counselling, medication management, and trauma-focused interventions like prolonged exposure therapy can help adults cope with the effects of traumatising events and work towards healing.


Q: Can adverse childhood experiences lead to the development of anxiety disorders and panic attacks in adults?

A: Yes, childhood trauma can increase the risk of developing anxiety, panic attacks, and other mental health conditions in adulthood due to the lasting impact of early traumatic experiences.


Q: How common is it for adults to have experienced childhood trauma?

A: Many adults have experienced some form of childhood trauma, ranging from physical, emotional, or sexual abuse to neglect or exposure to violence, which can have profound effects on their well-being.


Conclusion


Childhood trauma can have profound and lasting impacts that extend far into adulthood.

Though the past can't be changed, understanding the links between childhood experiences and adult challenges is empowering.


This awareness allows individuals to address their issues and find the right therapeutic approach for developing coping strategies.


With the right resources, compassion, and patience, even the deepest emotional scars can be healed.

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