How Does Childhood Trauma Affect Adulthood?

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated April 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Traumatic events can significantly affect people in many ways, especially when they are experienced as a child. Childhood trauma can involve abuse, neglect, medical trauma, household challenges, environmental factors, social influences, or any traumatic event. 

Trauma can lead to the development of psychological disorders like depression, anxiety, and PTSD. It can also influence a person’s attachment style, adult relationships, ability to trust others, and more. 

Many types of psychotherapy can be helpful in healing from childhood trauma as an adult. You can begin therapy by seeking out a local therapist or matching with a licensed mental health professional through an online therapy platform.

What is childhood trauma?

Childhood trauma can take many forms, though it generally encompasses scary, dangerous, violent, or life-threatening events experienced or witnessed by children. Many children may not yet have the emotional intelligence to understand the overwhelming feelings they can experience in these situations, which often leads to difficulty calming themselves, processing the events, and managing emotions.

Traumatic experiences don’t always offer an opportunity to feel your feelings. A child’s ability to understand their emotions is also limited due to developmental stages, and this can create lingering trauma reactions. Sometimes, the effects of childhood trauma may continue into adulthood, resulting in future relationship difficulties or struggles with self-identity. 

Does childhood trauma affect you as an adult?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

When a person experiences or witnesses something traumatic, they may develop PTSD as a result. PTSD can be defined as a trauma-related mental health condition that may develop after traumatic events. The disorder may not develop immediately following the trauma and can sometimes appear years later. 

PTSD generally creates powerful, unwanted, intrusive symptoms that can affect your thoughts, mood, behavior, and overall comfort level. Many people with PTSD find that its symptoms impact multiple aspects of their lives, often causing severe functional impairment. 

Repressed memories

Humans can go through something so traumatic that their brains block the memories to defend themselves. Trauma also tends to affect how you remember events. The concept of forgotten trauma and repressed memories can be controversial in the mental health community. 

Still, a recent paper published in Scientific American suggests that brain imaging may lend some weight to the theory of forgotten trauma. As you grow older, you may start to recall previously forgotten memories or discover blocks of time you can't remember. However, memory can be notoriously tricky and subjective. It can be wise to be wary of false memories and speak to your doctor or therapist if you're concerned you may not remember events as they truly occurred. 

Alcohol and substance use disorders

Childhood trauma can often lead to untreated mental health symptoms, and if you don’t have healthy ways to cope with the stress, it can be easy to turn to alcohol or substance use as an escape or avoidance coping mechanism. Children learn from watching their guardians and parents in many cases, so a child’s reaction to stress might evolve into substance use if this was something they were exposed to growing up. 

What constitutes childhood trauma?

There can be many causes of childhood trauma, and the circumstances may differ for everyone. However, medical and mental health professionals have generally assembled a list of potential causes for childhood trauma and PTSD that may linger into adulthood. 


Children who experience physical, sexual, or emotional abuse are generally thought to have experienced childhood trauma.


Emotional, physical, or financial neglect during childhood can be traumatic.

Medical trauma

Medical illnesses, frequent hospitalization, pain or injury, and medical procedures can be a form of childhood trauma.

Household challenges

Children who witness divorce, mental illness, domestic violence, substance use disorders, incarceration, or the death of loved ones are usually thought to have experienced childhood trauma.

Environmental factors

Natural disasters, homelessness, and poverty can all be a source of trauma for children. 

Social influences

Racism, bullying, violence, and discrimination can also be considered forms of childhood trauma. 

Getty/Vadym Pastukh

Exploring how childhood trauma and adverse childhood experiences can affect adults

Many people who have lived through childhood trauma can experience lifelong effects. Others may not experience any symptoms for years but may begin experiencing delayed reactions or repressed trauma symptoms as adults. 

Attachment style

According to attachment theory, humans usually develop lifelong patterns for relating to others based on how their parents or caregivers met their physical and emotional needs during childhood and adolescence. Four attachment styles were developed based on the original 1940s theory.

Secure attachment

This attachment style usually results from caregivers consistently meeting the child’s physical and emotional needs. Those with a secure attachment style generally view themselves and others positively. 

Preoccupied (anxious) attachment

Childhood care may have been inconsistent with alternating warmth and emotional distance. Those with this attachment style may view others positively while maintaining a negative view of themselves.  

Dismissive (avoidant) attachment

Caregivers likely emphasized independence while meeting the child’s physical needs and maintaining emotional distance. Those with a dismissive attachment style may view themselves positively and others negatively.  

Fearful (disorganized) attachment

A child’s parents or guardians may have failed to meet their emotional and physical needs. Abuse, trauma, or neglect may have occurred. Individuals with a fearful attachment style may view themselves and others negatively.    

Attachment disorder

Children who experience abuse and trauma may develop attachment disorders, potentially making it difficult for them to form and maintain relationships with others throughout their lives. While attachment disorders are usually only formally diagnosed in children, many adults can experience unhealthy attachments and avoidance difficulties. 

Adult relationships

One of the things children tend to learn from their parents or guardians is how to act with other people and what functional adult relationships should look like. However, if a child grows up in a dysfunctional home, they may not witness the kinds of behavior modeling that can teach healthy ways to act in a relationship.

Trust issues

Going through traumatic events as a child can lead to trust issues as an adult, especially if the trauma is related to abuse or neglect, in which caregivers who were supposed to safeguard them instead caused harm. 

Mental health conditions

Studies usually show a significant link between childhood trauma and the likelihood of developing mental health conditions as adults. Children who experience trauma typically have a higher risk of developing various mental illnesses.

Emotional control challenges

Many children who experience trauma grow up to become adults living with PTSD and unresolved emotional issues that can make it challenging to control their emotions effectively. 

Physical health challenges

Individuals who experience trauma in childhood may experience lasting effects on their physical health as well. Complex trauma symptoms can impact a person’s ability to manage their physical health and lifestyle. These distressing events may also lead to risky behavior like unprotected sex that could compromise their physical health. 

Does childhood trauma affect you as an adult?

How to heal from childhood trauma

Just as your childhood trauma may be a unique and individual experience, your path to healing from it will likely be specific to you. Recovering from childhood trauma can be a lengthy process that may leave you feeling worse before feeling better, but mental health is often an area that requires you to “trust the process.” 

Talk therapy can offer the support and guidance of an expert in mental health to help you examine your past experiences and how they may relate to your current emotional state. Working with a licensed therapist can help you learn practical coping skills to manage your symptoms and process your unresolved feelings. You can also build your communication skills to learn how to express your emotions and needs in a healthy, effective manner. Types of therapy that may prove to be helpful can include the following: 

  • Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT)

  • Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT)

  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR)

  • Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET)

  • Prolonged Exposure Therapy

Benefits of online therapy

Many people who experience childhood trauma can develop mental illnesses and experience symptoms that affect their adult lives. If you’re having trouble controlling your emotions and managing the effects of various symptoms, consider working with a licensed therapist online through a virtual therapy platform. It can often feel more comfortable to speak about traumatic childhood experiences in the comfort of your own home, rather than in an unfamiliar environment like a therapist’s office. 

Effectiveness of online therapy

Information from recent studies show that online trauma-focused therapy typically offers similar outcomes to in-person treatments, often at lower costs with shorter wait times. If you’re continuing to experience the negative impacts of childhood trauma, please don’t hesitate to reach out for the professional help you deserve.


Experiencing or witnessing trauma during childhood can lead to PTSD and other mental health conditions. Childhood trauma can drastically affect adult behavior, from influencing how you relate to other people to causing debilitating symptoms that may prevent you from functioning properly. Therapy with a licensed mental health professional, whether it’s completed in person or online, can be an effective way to address childhood trauma and thrive in your adult life.
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