Signs of Childhood Trauma in Adults

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If you experienced trauma as a child, it's likely that you are or have experienced some amount of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) later in life.

This article explains what trauma is, what childhood abuse may look like, and how childhood trauma impacts adulthood.

If you are a victim of child abuse or know someone who might be, call or text the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453 to speak with a professional crisis counselor.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

What Is Childhood Trauma?

Trauma in childhood not only constitutes physical, emotional, or sexual abuse but exposure to traumatic events as well. These traumatic events could be when children witness natural disasters, or even when they witness violence within their communities.

What Determines a Child's Reaction to Traumatic Events?

Factors that determine a child's reaction to trauma include:

  • Developmental level: This could mean where the child is age-wise or mentally.
  • Ethnicity or cultural factors: This can impact what the child views as a normal response to trauma based on what they have seen from people in their communities or families.
  • Previous exposure to trauma: If a child is more accustomed to traumatic events, it could mean that they adapt by learning to control their reactions.
  • Available resources: Refers to how socioeconomically connected their family is, as well as their access to their needs on a regular basis.
  • Preexisting child and family problems: This could dictate how supportive your parents are when you tell them that something traumatic happened, or it could mean that some form of abusive trauma is occurring in your immediate family.

Signs of PTSD in Children

After exposure to any traumatic event, kids tend to express some form of behavioral change. These behaviors are still regularly reported by mental health professionals in their daily practices with adults. These behavioral changes could include:

  • Sudden new fears: These fears may or may not be related to the traumatic event.
  • Separation anxiety: Occurs when a child becomes overwhelmed with anxiety if their parents are not around.
  • Sleep disturbances: This could mean that they start having nightmares or lose the ability to fall asleep quickly.
  • Sadness: If you notice that you or a loved one is feeling down much more often, it may be a sign that they're coping with a traumatic event.
  • Losing interest in normal activities: A child may lose interest in things they once enjoyed.
  • Inability to concentrate: This could be long or short-term and impact things like school, work, or normal activities.
  • Anger: Unexplained anger, or irritability that doesn't match up to the level of the event, can be a sign of a traumatic event.
  • Somatic complaints: These can include stomachaches, headaches, or any other physical pains that seem to have no root cause.

It's important to note that many of these symptoms go away with time, however, the risk of PTSD does increase if the child is repeatedly exposed to trauma or has a history of anxiety issues.

While kids may heal, between 3% and 15% of girls and 1% to 6%of boys will develop PTSD.In general, if any of the symptoms listed above appear for longer periods of time, it may be time to consider seeking a therapist that focuses on the treatment of PTSD.

In addition to those symptoms, children who are experiencing PTSD may also exhibit hypervigilance in an effort to look for warning signs to prevent future traumas.

Children suffering from PTSD may also re-experience the trauma or avoid things that may remind them or cause them to remember the trauma.

Press Play for Advice On Healing Childhood Wounds

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast, featuring award-winning actress Chrissy Metz, shares how to heal childhood trauma, safeguard your mental health, and how to get comfortable when faced with difficult emotions. Click below to listen now.

Follow Now: Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Google Podcasts

Signs of Childhood Trauma in Adults

The effects of childhood trauma can last well into adulthood. Trauma can impact future relationships and lead to other issues like depression and low self-esteem.

Childhood Abuse May Impact Adult Relationships

Experiencing trauma in childhood can impact the way that you form attachments in romantic relationships.

One study asked 911 students (492 female and 419 male) about their experiences with trauma as children.

The students that were surveyed that experienced physical, emotional, or sexual abuse were more likely to exhibit attachment styles that were fearful, preoccupied, and dismissive. It also found that students that did not experience childhood trauma were much more likely to have secure attachment styles into adulthood.

Here's a look at the four attachment styles:

  1. Secure: People with secure attachment styles have healthy relationships and good levels of self-esteem.
  2. Ambivalent: These attachment styles are reluctant to get too close to people and always worry that their partners are going to leave them.
  3. Avoidant: Avoidant attachment styles have problems with intimacy and never let anyone too close for fear of abandonment.
  4. Disorganized: These attachment styles sometimes take on parental roles in romantic relationships.

Other Signs of Childhood Trauma in Adults

Exposure to traumatic events can also cause poor self-esteem, depression, self-destructive behavior, and even difficulty trusting others. This can become especially problematic with age, as PTSD and traumatic events from childhood can actually result in adverse health effects in adulthood.

According to a Cleveland Clinic podcast,adults who experienced trauma as kids are much more susceptible to depression and mood disorders, as well as thoughts of suicide. They are also likely to abuse alcohol and other substances. Finally, they are more prone to developing chronic illnesses, like diabetes and heart disease, later in life.

The higher likelihood of developing chronic illness is potentially due to the fact that adults who experienced trauma as children are more likely to engage in high-risk activities like smoking.

This podcast also explained that doctors are researching the possibility that understanding someone's past and their relation to trauma can lead to better treatment that could help in the prevention of these diseases and symptoms. It's even possible that these traumas impacted the brain in a specific way.

Recognizing how the brain has been impacted could lead to advancements in treatment when it comes to therapy and medical intervention.

A Word From Verywell

You are never too old or too far removed to seek help for something that happened when you were a child. Know that you can always start working on yourself and seek help from a therapist. Know that your thoughts and feelings about things that happened to you years ago are just as valid now as they were then, and it is OK if it has taken you a while to get to a point where you are ready to work on it. No matter when you experienced abuse in your life, it is never too late to seek help from a professional.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychological Association. Children and Trauma. 2011.

  2. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. How Common is PTSD in Children and Teens?.

  3. Erozkan, A. (2016). The Link between Types of Attachment and Childhood TraumaUniversal Journal of Educational Research4(5), 1071–1079.

  4. Finzi, R., Cohen, O., Sapir, Y. et al. Attachment Styles in Maltreated Children: A Comparative StudyChild Psychiatry Hum Dev 31, 113–128 (2000).

  5. Gilbert LK, Breiding MJ, Merrick MT, et al. Childhood adversity and adult chronic disease: An update from ten states and the District of Columbia, 2010Am J Prev Med. 2015;48(3):345-349.

  6. Stevens, DO, PhD, G., & Falcone, MD, T. (n.d.). Effect of Adverse Childhood Experiences.

By Brittany Loggins
Brittany is a health and lifestyle writer and former staffer at TODAY on NBC and CBS News. She's also contributed to dozens of magazines.