Treating the Effects of Childhood Trauma

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An estimated 46% of children experience trauma at some point in their young lives. While kids are resilient, they’re not made of stone. Adults often say things like, "they were so young when that happened, they won’t even remember it as an adult," but childhood trauma can have a lifelong effect.

That’s not to say that a child will be emotionally scarred forever if they endure a horrific experience. But it’s important to recognize when a child may need professional help for dealing with their trauma. Early intervention can also prevent the ongoing effects of the trauma into adulthood.

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What Is Childhood Trauma?

Childhood trauma is an event experienced by a child that evokes fear and is commonly violent, dangerous, or life-threatening. Also sometimes referred to as adverse childhood experiences or ACEs, there are many different experiences that can lead to trauma.

Physical or sexual abuse, for example, can be traumatic for children. One-time events like a car accident, natural disaster (like a hurricane), the loss of a loved one, or a major medical incident can take a psychological toll on children as well.

Ongoing stress, such as living in a dangerous neighborhood or being the target of bullying, can also be traumatic for a child—even if it just feels like daily life to an adult.

Childhood trauma doesn’t even have to involve experiences that occur directly to the child. Watching a loved one endure a major health issue, for instance, can be extremely traumatic for children. Violent media can have this effect too.

Just because an experience is upsetting doesn’t make it traumatic. Parental divorce, for example, will likely affect a child but it isn’t necessarily traumatizing.

Childhood Trauma and PTSD

As many as 15% of girls and 6% of boys develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following a traumatic event. Children with PTSD may re-experience the trauma in their minds over and over again. They might also avoid anything that reminds them of the trauma or re-enact the trauma in their play.

Sometimes children believe that they missed warning signs predicting the traumatic event. In an effort to prevent future traumas, they become hypervigilant in looking for signs that something bad is going to happen again.

Children with PTSD may also:

  • Act younger than they are (such as by sucking their thumb)
  • Experience trouble focusing
  • Feel more depressed or anxious
  • Find it difficult to be affectionate with others
  • Have increased anger and aggression
  • Have issues in school
  • Have trouble sleeping
  • Lose interest in activities they once enjoyed
  • Lose touch with reality
  • Seem detached, numb, or non-responsive
  • Worry about dying young

Even children who don’t develop PTSD may still exhibit emotional and behavioral issues following a traumatic experience. Here are some things to watch for during the weeks and months after an upsetting event:

  • Anger issues
  • Attention problems
  • Changes in appetite
  • Development of new fears
  • Increased concerns about death or safety
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest in normal activities
  • Problems sleeping
  • Sadness
  • School refusal
  • Somatic complaints like headaches and stomachaches

Impacts of Childhood Trauma

Traumatic events can affect how a child’s brain develops, which can have lifelong consequences for them physically, mentally, and socially.

Physical Health Impacts

When a child experiences a traumatic event, it can impair their physical development. The stress can impair the development of their immune and central nervous systems, making it harder to achieve their full potential.

A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reports that the more adverse experiences a child has, the higher their risk of chronic disease later in life. Specifically, it notes that exposure to repeated trauma increases a child's risk of developing:

  • Asthma
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Stroke

A 2019 review of 134 different research-based articles adds that exposure to adverse experiences as children increases the risk of developing several different conditions—such as autoimmune diseases, pulmonary disease, cardiovascular disease, and cancer—in adulthood, as well as increasing levels of pain.

Mental Health Impacts

Childhood trauma can also have an impact on mental health. Psychological effects of traumatic experiences can include:

Children exposed to complex traumas may even become disassociated. Dissociation involves separating themselves from the experience mentally. They might imagine that they are outside of their bodies and watching it from somewhere else or they may lose memory of the experience, resulting in memory gaps.

Research published in Psychiatric Times further notes that the prevalence of suicide attempts is significantly higher in adults who experienced traumas such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, and parental domestic violence as a child.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

Relationship Impacts

A child’s relationship with their caregivers—whether they be parents, grandparents, or other familial or non-familial adults—is vital to their emotional and physical health. The attachment children have with their caregivers can help them learn to trust others, manage emotions, and positively interact with the world around them.

When a child experiences a trauma that teaches them that they cannot trust or rely on that caregiver, however, they're likely to believe that the world around them is a scary place and people are dangerous. This lesson makes it incredibly difficult to form relationships throughout their childhood and into their adult years.

Children who experience trauma are also likely to struggle with romantic relationships in adulthood. A 2017 study in the Journal of Family Psychology found that spouses with a history of child abuse tend to have less satisfying marriages, even when still in the newlywed phase.

Other Impacts

Sometimes the impact of childhood trauma extends beyond physical or mental health and relationships. For instance, some studies have connected adverse childhood experiences with an increased risk of becoming a criminal offender by the age of 35, oftentimes committing offenses that are serious and violent.

Additional impacts can include:

  • Being easily "set off" and having more intense reactions
  • Engaging in high-risk behaviors (such as driving at high speeds or unsafe sex)
  • Inability to plan ahead or prepare for the future
  • Increased risk of self-harm
  • Lack of impulse control
  • Low self-esteem
  • Trouble problem-solving or reasoning

Children experiencing traumatic events may also have a reduced ability to parent their own kids later in life.

Untreated Childhood Trauma

When childhood trauma goes untreated, issues related to the trauma are often not resolved and, as a result, can be felt long-term. Not receiving treatment also limits the possibility of preventing some of the negative consequences associated with trauma, even on a biological level.

For example, one study found that patients with untreated childhood trauma had greater glucocorticoid resistance. Glucocorticoid resistance is highly associated with depression. These findings suggest that a lack of treatment for trauma may, directly and indirectly, contribute to the development of depression.

How to Help Children Who Have Experienced Trauma

Social support can be key to reducing the impact trauma has on a child, even as far as reducing their risk of suicidal ideation. Here are some ways to support a child after an upsetting event:

  • Encourage the child to talk about their feelings and validate their emotions.
  • Help them understand that they are not at fault.
  • Answer their questions honestly.
  • Reassure the child that you’ll do everything you can to keep them safe.
  • Stick to a daily routine as much as possible.
  • Be patient as each child recovers at their own pace.

Depending on the child’s age and needs, they may be referred for services such as cognitive behavioral therapy, play therapy, or family therapy. In some cases, such as when there is a diagnosis of PTSD, medication may also be an option to help treat their symptoms.

How to Heal From Your Own Childhood Trauma

If you experienced trauma as a child and still have some healing to do, there are several actions you can take to help you better cope. Among them are:

Talking to a mental health professional can also help you start to heal. Therapeutic options may include a number of trauma-informed therapies, such as cognitive processing therapy (CPT), trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), among others.

You may also want to reach out to reputable organizations able to help childhood trauma survivors. The Disaster Distress Helpline offered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is one option. If you prefer to communicate via text, the Crisis Text Line is another.

A Word From Verywell

While it's normal to have some level of distress following a traumatic event, it's not out of the question that children can return to a healthy state of functioning—and some kids are less affected by their circumstances than others.

If childhood trauma has created negative effects, it is never too late to get help. Whether you’ve adopted a teenager who was abused over a decade ago or you’ve never received help for the traumatic experiences you endured 40 years ago, trauma treatment can still be effective and beneficial.

If you or a loved one are struggling with childhood trauma, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

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

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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.
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