How Does Childhood Trauma Affect Adulthood?

By: Mason Komay

Updated September 18, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Avia James

For better or worse, every adult lived through their childhood. More often than not, the quality of one's childhood impacts one's adult life in terms of relationships, mental health, and how one sees the world. Each parent is responsible for doing right by their children by providing them with opportunities and otherwise setting them up for success. While good parenting, stable environments, and positive exposure can help a child to be happy and successful later in life, bad parenting, dangerous environments, and negative exposure can cause serious problems in adulthood.

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There are many ways to inflict childhood trauma, but it's generally caused by physical/sexual abuse, neglect, or other forms of mistreatment. Trauma can be inflicted by parents, siblings, or individuals in positions of power and authority, and it can leave physiological, psychological, and emotional scars long after the abuse has subsided.

Depending on the longevity and the extent of the trauma, some people can overcome it, living successful and fulfilling lives. This article will cover common effects of childhood trauma, as well as coping tool to move forward to a healthy, adult life.

How Childhood Trauma Affects Self-Image

According to Psychology Today, one of the most devastating impacts of childhood trauma is the effect it has on self-image. Adults who experienced significant trauma as children are more likely to develop a pattern of victimhood thinking. As the name suggests, this state of mind is the belief that one is a victim. Adopting this ideology is incredibly dangerous, as the way people perceive themselves impacts their words, choices, careers, opportunities, and relationships. Individuals who genuinely think the world is out to get them will inevitably attract situations and people who reinforce these beliefs, regardless of how incorrect they may be.

Victimhood thinking is not the only way childhood trauma changes adult behavior. People who were mistreated as children may also become passive and subservient. This usually manifests as the inability to self-express or self-defend and the tendency to bottle up emotions. While some people view passivity as being agreeable or being a team player, burying feelings beneath the surface and not speaking up can have devastating impacts. Moreover, subservience often attracts parasitic individuals who exploit and take advantage of others.

While passivity and subservience are dangerous for everyone, these traits are particularly hazardous for women. If they adopt the behaviors above, women who struggle with unresolved childhood trauma are likely to attract abusive partners or spouses. Abusive relationships, domestic violence, and toxic significant others are nothing to joke about. People have died because they couldn't avoid or escape these dangers.

How Childhood Trauma Affects Personal Relationships

Like self-image, adult relationships are frequently another casualty of childhood trauma. Psychology Today affirms that people who experienced considerable trauma during childhood tend to attract toxic relationships or even avoid relationships altogether.

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This is why people with high self-esteem, confidence, and positive self-image tend to attract beneficial relationships and opportunities. Likewise, someone who lacks these traits generally attracts negative and parasitic people as well as the circumstances that follow.

Left unchecked and unresolved, childhood trauma impacts both personal beliefs and personal relationships. Someone who was abused, neglected, or mistreated as a child may genuinely view themselves as undeserving of loving, supportive, and healthy relationships. Moreover, they may view themselves as unworthy of accomplishments, thus leading to a lack of drive and ambition. In other words, childhood trauma survivors can feel alone, unlovable, and directionless in adulthood.

Childhood Trauma Increases Likelihood of Experiencing Depression

According to reports from Psychological Science, adults who were exposed to childhood trauma are considerably more vulnerable to depression. Unfortunately, depression is not always taken seriously, but it's a very real mental health issue with a litany of troubling symptoms. Contrary to certain misconceptions, individuals who suffer from depression cannot simply "get over it" or "snap out of it." Ordering a depressed person to do these things can cause more harm than good.

The Mayo Clinic provides insight into the effects of clinical depression. This adverse state of mind affects the way that afflicted individuals view themselves, others, and the world around them. Depression also has the power to engender emotional and even physical problems.

Here are some of the most common symptoms and indicators of depression:

  • Insomnia
  • Drained energy
  • Hopelessness
  • Ongoing sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Lack of appetite
  • Poor concentration
  • Suicidal thoughts/actions

In most cases, individuals with the abovementioned symptoms tend to isolate themselves while neglecting self-care, slacking off work, and alienating others. Attempts to connect with a depressed person may fail, which can be frustrating and hurtful to friends and relatives who genuinely want the best for the individual in question.

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How to Overcome Childhood Trauma

Reading about the effects of childhood trauma can be quite unnerving. However, people who have experienced difficulties as children should not become discouraged or lose hope. No matter what happened in the past, the sun always rises again. There is always room for self-improvement, growth, and recovery. Individuals who went through tough times as children can have positive self-images and healthy relationships while living happy, successful lives.

Engage in Self-Care

Although self-care may seem somewhat trivial when you're overcoming childhood trauma, it matters more than you might think. Jordan Grey Consulting explains that individuals who survived traumatic childhoods may subconsciously view themselves as unworthy of healthy habits and lifestyle choices. Therefore, they are more likely to neglect their body, eating habits, etc. This creates a vicious cycle of low self-esteem and eventual self-loathing.

Thankfully, the cycle can be broken with healthy habits, such as exercise, a good night's sleep, and healthy eating. Another important form of self-care involves considering the quality of one's friends, romantic partners, and other relationships. The people around us impact our perceptions, choices, and worldviews. This is why ending unhealthy relationships and cutting off toxic individuals is paramount, especially for people who are working to heal wounds from childhood trauma.

Pursue Hobbies and Extracurricular Interests

One of the most effective ways to overcome negative memories is by creating positive ones. Pursuing hobbies and extracurricular interests not only allows adults to evolve as individuals, but they also help adults to find a sense of purpose and something to look forward to. It's important for survivors of childhood trauma to know that their past experiences do not have to define the rest of their lives. Everyone has the power to control their fate and quality of life.

Seek Professional Help and Guidance

In many cases, counselors and therapists can serve as the greatest allies for adults who have undergone childhood trauma. This is largely because trained mental health professionals are equipped to help people work through and heal these difficult issues. However, even with professional help and guidance, you won't overcome childhood trauma overnight. It's going to take time, dedication, and commitment. Moreover, overcoming childhood trauma may require revisiting unpleasant memories. The road to recovery will vary depending on the person, and it can be hard, but it will ultimately be worth it.

Here at BetterHelp, our specialists understand that life presents unique challenges to everyone. No matter who you are or what you've been through, your past does not define you, nor does it have to determine the rest of your life. We can support you in moving past it. Only you can decide to seek professional help. BetterHelp is a convenient option for online therapy should you want support on your healing journey. Below are some counselor reviews, from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

"Natasha is a very insightful, kind and compassionate counselor. Her gentle, professional approach to guiding you through a problem shows her empathy and understanding. She helped me see some childhood issues that I hadn't addressed in years."

"She's kind, responsive, caring, validating - everything I could ever hope for in a therapist. I came from a very abusive, traumatic childhood that still influences who I am, and Billie is helping me undo that damage. She answers me every day, responds to everything I write to her, and always answers my questions. When I get stuck, she nudges me forward with gentle suggestions that I can use or not… I feel like I'm making so much progress with her."

Alternative Solutions

Stay Focused on Your Future

Your past does not necessarily dictate your future. As children, we're often restricted by the rules and limitations set by our parents and other authority figures. As an adult, you have the freedom to set your own path toward a future built by your own personal goals, morals, and ambition. Stay focused on what's ahead, as the past is and always will be a memory.

Don't Try to Rationalize Your Trauma

It's not uncommon to try and make sense of the trauma inflicted throughout your childhood. However, you shouldn't waste too much time or effort on this. There is absolutely nothing that can justify child abuse, so don't strain yourself trying to rationalize it. Instead, try and see it for what it is--a dark chapter in your life that is and was completely out of your control.

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Learn from Your Past

Now that you're an adult, you're capable of recognizing toxic and abusive behavior, so you can use your past as a learning experience; you know what not to do with your children. You don't have to follow in the footsteps of those who raised you, nor should you. As weird as it may sound, you can put your dark experience to good use by vowing never to inflict the trauma you endured on others.

Final Thoughts

Childhood trauma can negatively impact the rest of your life, but it doesn't have to be that way. You can heal. As an adult, you now hold the power to change your life. Take the first step.

FAQs

What does childhood trauma look like in adults?

If you do an archives search, you’ll quickly find that developmental trauma is common. You’ll also see that it can have long lasting effects that may lead to specific problems throughout adulthood.

Adults that survived childhood trauma may have trouble regulating their emotions and have difficulty in relationships, as well as have poor memory and low self-esteem. Childhood trauma can also affect an adult’s long term health by manifesting in addiction, mental health disorders, or chronic illness. It’s common for adult victims of childhood trauma to be affected by obesity, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, heart disease, and cancer.

How do you treat childhood trauma in adults?

At mental health treatment centers, psychiatrists and psychologists will conduct an evaluation to help them better understand your condition. When you get the results back from your therapists, treatment will begin shortly after. Depending on your individual needs, your treatment plan may have more than one service from psychology. The typical treatments for childhood trauma in adults may include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), eye-movement desensitizing response (EMDR), or medication.

How do I know if I have childhood trauma? 

Childhood trauma often happens at an early age. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports that 78% of children have had more than one traumatic experience before they reached five years old. If you don’t remember your past, extended family members may be able to fill in some of the blanks for you.

It’s common for people that experienced childhood trauma to have trouble controlling what they eat. Some children eat too little and become emaciated and others eat too much and become obese. Physical symptoms may include somatic complaints, sleep disturbance, clinginess, and being irritable or hard to soothe. Such children also play into trauma by repeating the activities involved in their trauma as they’re playing.

How does childhood trauma affect personality?

Having a traumatic history affects how you feel about yourself and how you interact with other people. The effects of a traumatic past may cause a host of reactions that include intense emotions, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, anger, and irritability, and anger. Your therapist may administer personality tests along with other psychological tests to better understand you. Be aware that some therapists believe that personality tests are flawed because they incorrectly assume that our personalities are fixed and can’t be changed.

What happens if childhood trauma is not resolved?

Therapeutic interventions can help you to resolve childhood trauma. If you don’t take those steps, it negatively changes the way that you think about your world and the people in it when you become an adult.

For example, it’s common for victims of childhood trauma to discover new disorders that are causing emotional instability and impacting mental health functioning. Depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders may develop and add to your problem. Some people resort to engaging in risky behaviors such as having unprotected sex, as an example of unhealthy coping practices.

Emotional wounds can cause you to develop a sense of self that’s false. As adults, child victims of trauma may become people pleasers as a way of coping with anxiety disorders. They bury their feelings and develop a persona that they believe people want them to be. They may develop an internal negative dialogue or become passive-aggressive. Some people just become passive and even though they know what they need to do, they’re just not able to. When you bury your feelings, you bury some of who you are as a person.

How do you let go of childhood trauma? 

Letting go of childhood trauma begins with distancing yourself from toxic people to reduce your stress network. Build a strong support system by surrounding yourself with supportive people. In small doses, reinvigorate yourself with current face to face relationships that are strong and healthy rather than isolating yourself. Seek out a trauma specialist that can develop a treatment program for you that includes stress-reduction techniques. Watch your diet and keep yourself physically fit so that you can think and process better. Letting go is a process that takes time, so be gentle on yourself until you begin to make progress.

Can you ever heal from childhood trauma?

Yes! With the right type of treatment, many people find healing from childhood trauma and go on to lead happy, healthy, productive lives. Trauma treatment consists of emotionally difficult work, but once you get through it, you’ll feel better than ever.

What are the 10 adverse childhood experiences?

Today’s cities and towns have many issues to deal with in protecting children and families including natural disasters, increasing crime, and our volatile economy. In recent news, COVID-19 is impacting people of all ages across the globe.

Be cautious of how the media play into trauma with so many news reports blasting COVID numbers across radio and TV outlets. It’s good to be cautious during this time of the pandemic but hearing constant bad news can cause you to be more hypervigilant than you need to be.

According to the Aces too High study, the ten adverse childhood experiences are:

  1. Substance abuse
  2. Parental separation or divorce
  3. Mental illness
  4. Battered mother
  5. Criminal behavior
  6. Psychological abuse
  7. Physical abuse
  8. Sexual abuse
  9. Emotional neglect
  10. Physical neglect

How do you know if you have repressed memories?

Uncovering repressed memories requires the help of a qualified therapist. There are some clues that may indicate that you have repressed memories, but our minds are very complex and you’ll need the help of a clinical professional to be sure.

If you have strong reactions to certain people and/or you feel uncomfortable around specific places or situations, it could be an indicator of past physical or sexual abuse. These memories may be deep-seated so you may not remember them in a cognitive sense, but your body may remember them. If you continually have unstable emotions and you’re impulsive, anxious, or angry and emotionally exhausted much of the time, these could be clues that you’re burying childhood memories. If your friends tell you that you’re immature and childish and you have trouble holding down a job, these could also be indicators of repressed memories. Also, people that tend to self-sabotage and fear being abandoned may be experiencing repressed memories.

Remember, these symptoms may not mean much individually, so it’s important to get a complete clinical evaluation to make sure that you’re addressing the right issues.


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