Understanding The Link Between Childhood Trauma And Adult Behavior

Updated May 29, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Traumatic events can significantly affect people in many ways—especially if the one living through it is a child. Trauma can often lead to the development of psychological disorders such as depression, anxiety, or stress-related conditions. Read on to learn more about the connection between childhood trauma and its effects on adult behaviors and how therapy can help you minimize the impact of symptoms. 

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 don’t have the emotional intelligence to understand the overwhelming feelings they experience in these situations, which can lead to difficulty processing their emotions. Additionally, traumatic experiences don’t always offer an opportunity to feel your feelings, and if you are too young to understand them properly, it can create lingering trauma reactions. 

“Traumatic events don’t always leave physical scars, but they often leave emotional and psychological ones. Those imprints can affect a child’s mental and physical health for years to come—and even into adulthood.” — The Cleveland Clinic

A child in school with dark curly hair and a light blue collared shirt over a white tee looks up while taking notes with one hand on their forehead.
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 is a trauma-related mental health condition that may occur 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 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 is 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. Be wary of false memories and speak to your doctor or therapist if you're concerned you may not remember events as they were. 

Alcohol and Substance Use Disorders

Childhood trauma can often lead to untreated mental health symptoms, and if you don’t know 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. 

What Causes Childhood Trauma?

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

  • Abuse

Children who experience physical, sexual, or emotional abuse can develop PTSD.

  • Neglect

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

  • Medical Trauma

Children with medical illnesses, frequent hospitalization, pain or injury, medical procedures, and other medically related trauma may experience PTSD. 

  • Household Challenges

Kids who see their parents go through a divorce, mental illness, domestic violence, substance use disorders, incarceration, or the death of loved ones can develop PTSD.

  • Environmental Factors

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

  • Social Influences

Racism, bullying, violence, and discrimination may lead to a child developing PTSD. 

A woman with brown hair and an olive-green top sits on a sofa with her eyes closed and an expression of frustration as she holds her fingers to her temples.
Getty/Vadym Pastukh

Exploring How Trauma During Childhood Can Affect Adults

Many people who’ve lived through childhood trauma can experience lifelong effects. Others may not experience any symptoms for years and begin feeling delayed reactions or repressed trauma as adults. 

Attachment Style

According to attachment theory, humans 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—Resulting from caregivers who consistently met physical and emotional needs. Generally view themselves and others positively. 

Insecure Attachments

Preoccupied (Anxious)—Childhood care was inconsistent with alternating warmth and emotional distance. May view others positively while maintaining a negative view of themselves.  

Dismissive (Avoidant)—Caregivers emphasized independence while meeting physical needs and maintaining emotional distance. May view themselves positively and others negatively.  

Fearful (Disorganized)—Parents or guardians failed to meet emotional and physical needs, often accompanying abuse, trauma, or neglect. May view themselves and others negatively.    

Attachment Issues

Children who experience abuse and trauma may develop attachment disorders, making it difficult to form and maintain relationships with others throughout life. While attachment disorders are only formally diagnosed in children, many adults experience unhealthy attachments and avoidance issues. 

Adult Relationships

One of the things children 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 will 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 where caregivers who were supposed to safeguard you instead caused harm. 

Mental Health Conditions

Studies show a significant link between childhood trauma and the likelihood of developing mental health conditions as adults. Children who experience trauma are 15 times more likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness in adulthood

Emotional Control

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

Does Childhood Trauma Affect You As An Adult?

How To Heal From Childhood Trauma

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

“As children, we can’t distinguish our feelings and our ‘self.’ We think we are our feelings. If our feelings aren’t treated as acceptable in a certain situation, we may decide that we aren’t acceptable. To heal from childhood trauma, we have to complete the process that should have begun decades ago, when the wounding incident happened.” — Andrea Brandt, Ph.D. M.F.T.


Talk therapy offers the support and guidance of an expert in mental health to help you examine your past experiences and how they relate to your current emotional state. Working with a qualified 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 positively. 

Tips For Healing Childhood Trauma As An Adult

Find ways to center yourself in the present before you begin examining your traumatic past. You are likely to experience some intense feelings, and if you have PTSD, potentially flashbacks to the trauma if you discover a new trigger. Start by recalling recent situations that upset you, remembering as much detail as possible. Monitor your body as you take this memory journey, paying attention to any physical reactions you experience. Identify and name the emotions you feel. Find ways to accept your emotions and make peace with your feelings. Allow yourself to feel the resulting emotions, receive the knowledge and wisdom you can—and then let them go so you can move on with your life. However, healing from childhood trauma is more than checking tasks off a list. 

How Therapy Can Help You Manage Your Trauma Symptoms

Many people who experience childhood trauma develop PTSD and have symptoms that affect their adult lives. If you’re having trouble controlling your emotions and the effects of PTSD symptoms, consider working with a licensed therapist online through a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp. Flexible appointment formats through phone, video call, or asynchronous online chat put the support and guidance of a mental health professional just a click away. 

Details from recent studies show that online trauma-focused therapy offers similar outcomes to in-person treatments, often at lower costs with shorter wait times. Internet-based CBT is usually recommended as a first-line treatment option to help patients with PTSD of mild to moderate severity. Many patients report that it's easier to share personal details with their therapist due to the physical separation of online therapy. The convenience of attending from home also made it possible for patients to participate more reliably. 


Experiencing or witnessing trauma during childhood can lead to PTSD and other mental health conditions that could follow you throughout your life. Childhood trauma can drastically affect adult behavior, from influencing how you relate to other people to debilitating symptoms that prevent you from functioning. The information provided in this article may offer insight into the link between childhood trauma and adult behavior and how therapy can help you manage PTSD symptoms to minimize their impact on your life. 

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