What To Do When Childhood Trauma Holds You Back

By Nicola Kirkpatrick

Updated April 15, 2019

Reviewer Melinda Santa

Once you experience childhood trauma, your life is forever changed. Children who are abused or neglected or suffer a major loss may continue to have serious psychological problems even after they are adults. If you find you have difficulty having healthy relationships or being successful at work, it may be childhood trauma that's holding you back from having the life you want, even if you don't recognize the signs that you were abused, neglected, or suffered some other kind of trauma. The good news is that you can identify and heal from childhood trauma. When you do, you can move past the trauma and create the life you want most.

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Start By Understanding Childhood Trauma

It would be an extremely rare child who never had anything bad happen to them. However, it's important to remember that not all negative experiences are traumatic. If you can understand what childhood trauma is, you may find out why you feel and behave the way you do now. If you realize that you have none of the symptoms nor the background of true childhood trauma, understanding what it is can make you a more compassionate person. Either way, the first step to understanding childhood trauma is to learn the definition. Factual; It is also generational trauma. Learning about your family's past/ oppression/ childhood experiences can also provide an intake on the understanding of one's trauma.

What Is Childhood Trauma?

To be considered traumatic, an event not only has to be negative, but it also has to be painful. A trauma is so impactful that is beyond your ability to cope in healthy ways. While traumas of all kinds fit this description, the most harmful are the traumas that are dealt out intentionally in interpersonal relationships. Childhood traumas include:

  • Physical abuse - When someone in authority over you injured you in any physical way, including cuts, bruises, scratches, burns, broken bones, or loss of consciousness.
  • Emotional abuse - When someone intentionally caused injury to your dignity or psychological integrity. Examples are threats, scapegoating, confining you to a closet or tying you to a chair, shaming, or forcing you to cause yourself pain.
  • Emotional neglect - If your caregiver failed to nurture you or give you the affection you needed.
  • Sexual abuse - If you were subjected to sexual touching or activity by a caregiver or other adult. Normally someone close to the family.
  • Physical neglect - If your caregiver failed to provide you with the physical resources you needed, such as food, clothing or shelter.
  • Natural Disasters - Living through a natural disaster such as a fire, a flood, a tornado or hurricane, or even a drought can cause trauma, too. However, if the adults in charge of you handled it well, the traumatic effects of it would be minimized.
  • Loss of Caregiver - When a child loses their parent or other caregiver, the effects can be devastating. Even the youngest children feel the effects, even though some adults assume they're too young to understand what has happened. While it's true they may not understand, it is this very inability to understand that causes them even more trauma and distress.
  • Trauma does not discriminate and can happen to anyone.

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How Childhood Trauma Affected Your Brain

Any trauma in childhood may leave a mark on your body as well as your mind. When the trauma is severe and prolonged, it also affects the structure of the child's brain. During childhood, your brain is busy growing and developing. When trauma disrupts this process, the results can be profoundly damaging.

Blocked Neural Pathways

Neurons make up the networks in the brain that link together to regulate your brain function. The earlier the childhood trauma happened, the more the brain's development is altered. The purpose of brain development is to enhance your ability to survive.

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However, when you grow up in a traumatizing environment, your brain develops in a way to help you survive in that environment. The neural pathways that work in that dysfunctional environment become overdeveloped, while other pathways aren't as well-developed as they would normally be. Early childhood trauma disrupts the proper formation of these pathways, while trauma that happens later in life changes the way the pathways are refined.

Since the traumatizing environment is so different from most of the situations you'll face later in life, you may have problems adapting to those new situations. Some people just can't cope outside of such an environment, so they end up seeking the same type of dysfunctional relationships that caused the trauma.

Effects Of Childhood Trauma On Adults

The effects of childhood trauma on adults can be severe and far-reaching. Trauma in childhood can change your thoughts, feelings, and your behaviors, and may negatively impact your physical health long after the trauma is over.

Damage To The Self

One of the earliest tasks of childhood development is forming a healthy self-concept. Throughout your life, you think and behave about the self-concept you've formed. When you experience childhood trauma, especially prolonged trauma, your self-concept is malformed and altered. Developing a more positive outlook and self esteem can assist in altering your view of self. Learning positive affirmations as well as learning to love yourself through it all.

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Thinking Of Yourself As A Victim

If you suffered childhood trauma due to a natural disaster or the loss of a parent or caregiver, it was probably hard for you to understand why that happened to you. As a child, you may have assumed that god or the universe was against you. You may have falsely learned that events that happened to you were some form of cosmic punishment.

Even more, if you were abused or neglected, you may have seen yourself only regarding that abuse or neglect. Your identity was formed in that victim role, and you may have a very hard time thinking yourself as someone who has power over their own life.

Passive-Aggressive Behavior

As a survivor of childhood trauma, you may have a lot of anger that you don't know what to do with. Typically, people with childhood trauma express their anger in passive-aggressive ways. They don't want to openly show their anger because they fear what would happen if they did. Instead, they strike out with sarcasm that they can later call a joke, or with intentional mistakes, they can later claim were innocent.

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Self-Abandonment (Being Passive)

One of the most harmful effects of childhood trauma is the total abandonment of the self. Rather than having an opinion, expressing a need, or telling people what they want, they hide these things in an attempt to keep the peace. Later, passivity becomes a long-standing pattern. You abandon your self and accept whatever is given you by the people in your life.

Effects On Physical And Mental Health

Another way to look at the effects of childhood trauma on adults is the types of physical and mental problems people who have had those experiences tend to develop.

Attachment Disorders

Children traumatized between the ages of 6 months and three years is prone to having trouble forming healthy attachments to others. Psychologists refer to the resulting disorder as reactive attachment disorder (RAD). RAD affects your ability to form adequate social relationships and affects your mood and behavior. You may have trouble trusting anyone.

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Poor Physical Health

When people have been traumatized early in life, they often have health problems later on that can be traced to the traumatizing events.

Poor Emotional Regulation

Emotional regulation means the ability to recognize, name, and deal with feelings. After experiencing a childhood trauma, you may have a hard time knowing, understanding, and managing your emotions.

The Altered States Of Consciousness

When childhood trauma happens, particularly if it goes on for a long time, children may easily fall into a dissociative state. Because they are children, people may not recognize these states as altered states of consciousness. Years later, these people may return to altered states of consciousness during stressful times.

Lowered Cognitive Ability

When children are systematically abused or neglected, they may develop cognitive problems. Some examples are poor verbal skills, memory problems, problems focusing or concentration, unable to develop adequate cognitive skills or specific learning disabilities.

Inconsistent Self-Concept

People who suffered childhood trauma may have an inconsistent self-concept. They don't know how to interpret the thoughts and feelings they have about themselves or distinguish their thoughts and feelings from what others say about them. They may see themselves as competent with one group of people but completely incompetent with others.

Poor Behavioral Control

People who experience childhood trauma often become impulsive adults. They have a hard time controlling their behavior and tend to do what they feel at the present moment without thinking of the consequences they'll face later on.

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Find Out If You Suffered Childhood Trauma

If you're like most people, you know you had some unpleasant experiences in your childhood. Everybody does. The question is: Were my experiences truly traumatic? Another question you need the answer to is: Did I suffer traumas I don't remember now? Once you answer these questions for yourself, you can move on to healing and build a life you can enjoy.

Do You Have Symptoms Of Childhood Trauma?

Survivors of childhood trauma may exhibit both physical and emotional symptoms. Physical symptoms include:

  • Not making eye contact
  • Chronic feeling of exhaustion
  • Anxiety and panic attacks
  • Shallow breathing
  • Chronic back pain
  • Hypervigilance
  • Feeling unable to move or having little ability to sit still
  • Bodily numbness
  • Poor health
  • Fainting or dizziness
  • Dry mouth

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Emotional symptoms of having had childhood trauma include:

  • Easily startled
  • Trust issues
  • Getting into the same type of relationships as the traumatizing one
  • Changing yourself to suit your environment
  • Being afraid people won't like you or will reject you
  • Becoming dependent on others
  • Feeling of powerlessness
  • Feeling helpless and hopeless
  • Taking too much or too little control
  • Feeling inadequate
  • Avoiding failure at the cost of abandoning your aspirations.

Examine Your Childhood Memories

You may be able to remember things that happened to you as a child that you now know were abuse, neglect, or some other form of traumatic event. It may help to try journaling as a way to get in touch with your childhood experiences and the feelings that accompanied them at the time. If you choose to start therapy, later on, these notes can help you get started.

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Talk To Relatives

Adults who have suffered trauma as children may not remember accurate details of the traumatizing events. Or, they might have forgotten what happened altogether. If your past seems like a big question mark, talk to relatives you trust who can help by filling in the parts you don't remember. Although everyone has their perspective, a relative may be able to fill in the details you need to identify and understand the trauma.

Take The Childhood Trauma Questionnaire

The Childhood Trauma Questionnaire is a tool that mental health professionals use to identify types and severity of child abuse and neglect. The questionnaire has been studied thoroughly in scientific research projects and has proven highly effective. It's a self-report test, meaning that you answer questions about yourself, rating each response from "Never True" to "Very Often True." ACES Study (Adverse Childhood Experiences). This study speaks in dept about the importance of receiving treatment from young (identify the trauma in childhood) and being able to speak on generational trauma. Know your ACE score here and learn what it does and doesn't mean.

Talk To A Counselor

If your exploration reveals signs, symptoms, or details of childhood trauma, a counselor can help you find out if you did, in fact, suffer a childhood trauma. Furthermore, they can help you deal with the feelings you have about it and teach you ways to overcome its effects on your life. Licensed counselors at BetterHelp.com can provide online therapy to help you evaluate and overcome childhood trauma.

Find Healing

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A therapist can listen to your story, help you discover how the childhood trauma still affects you, and teach you new ways to think about what happened. You can also get help in support groups and by developing healthy relationships with family and friends.

In Support Groups

Many people start trying to address childhood traumas in support groups. Being with people who have been through similar things can help you feel more normal. If others in the group have already dealt with the problems caused by their trauma, they may provide information and resources to help you continue your journey to healing.

In Therapy

While support groups can be helpful, individual therapy gives you the chance to examine the specific trauma you experienced and learn to overcome it in ways that are best suited to you. Another reason to pursue a course of therapy for childhood trauma is that it allows you to interact with a professional who has the education, training, and experience that will help you most.

In Healthy Relationships with Family and Friends

As your understanding grows and you begin to right the problems that have held you back, you can learn to have healthier relationships with those close to you. Your therapist can support you as you learn better ways to interact with the people you want in your life. They can teach you to communicate more openly, directly, and effectively. They can also teach you stress management techniques that can make these encounters more comfortable for you. Then, with healthy relationships in place, you may have a stronger support system than ever before.

Learn How to Move Beyond the Trauma

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Moving beyond the effects of childhood trauma may mean that you have to change both your thoughts and behaviors. As you do, your feelings may change as well. Through all these changes, you may feel vulnerable in a way you haven't since you were a child. However, with the support of a mental health professional, you can make the changes that can improve your life dramatically.

If you know or suspect you suffered trauma during your childhood, get help as soon as possible. Counselors are available at BetterHelp.com, and you can sign up for online counseling in just a few minutes. The sooner you get the help you need, the sooner you can begin to heal and start the journey toward the healthy, happy life you deserve.

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