Is Childhood Trauma Holding You Back?

Updated December 7, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Almost half of all children in the United States experience at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE), which is a potentially traumatic event. If you had such an experience in your formative years, it may affect how you function as an adult—even if you don’t realize it. Let’s look more closely at the subject of childhood trauma, the impact it can have on adulthood, and ways you can help manage its impact.

Wondering How To Manage The Impacts Of Childhood Trauma?

What Is Childhood Trauma?

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) defines a traumatic event as “a shocking, scary, or dangerous experience that can affect someone emotionally and physically”, and notes that responses to it can be ”immediate or delayed, brief or prolonged”. Childhood trauma, then, is when someone has an experience like this at a young age. Some examples of traumatic events that a child may go through include:

  • Natural disasters like floods, hurricanes, or earthquakes

  • Major illness, whether it afflicts the child or someone close to them

  • Sexual abuse

  • Death of a loved one

  • Domestic violence in the home

  • Bullying

  • Neglectful, detached, or abusive parents

  • War or civil unrest

  • Community violence

Not all children who experience a traumatic event will develop traumatic stress. However, all children who experience traumatic stress and the feelings that come with it have first experienced a traumatic event. Some factors that impact the likelihood that a person will develop traumatic stress include the severity of the event, the child’s proximity to the event, and other past instances of trauma.

It’s also worth noting that children respond differently to trauma based on their age and individual circumstances. Therefore, emotional and behavioral patterns may change as they age even though they may all be responses to the same traumatic event. For example, a person who experiences a traumatic event as a five-year-old may cry often and experience frequent nightmares. At 10, they may experience feelings of guilt and be unable to concentrate in school. At 16, they may begin turning to alcohol to cope. By the time a person enters adulthood, the impact of their childhood trauma may present in a variety of different ways.

The Impact Of Childhood Trauma In Adulthood

Experiencing trauma in childhood may lead to numerous challenges in adulthood. However, that doesn’t mean that childhood trauma will necessarily cause adults to develop specific mental illnesses. If you would like to better understand how negative childhood experiences may be impacting your adult life, it’s best to work with a mental health professional.

That said, childhood trauma can lead to a variety of symptoms later in life. Some of these include the development of unhealthy relationships, avoidance of challenges, heightened anxiety, low self-worth, nightmares, feelings of shame, and challenges recognizing or handling emotions. 

How Childhood Trauma Can Affect Attachment Styles

According to attachment theory, an individual’s childhood experiences—including the presence or absence of trauma—impact their attachment style as an adult. The four attachment styles are secure, anxious, disorganized, and avoidant. The last three are considered to be insecure attachment styles, which may make forming lasting, connected relationships more difficult.

One study found that physical, emotional, and sexual abuse in childhood was positively correlated with anxious, avoidant, and disorganized attachment styles. Physical and emotional neglect was also linked to insecure attachment styles in general.

Managing The Effects Childhood Trauma As An Adult

It’s never too late to start healing from or learning to manage the effects of past trauma, and working with a mental health professional can be a helpful part of this process.

Depending on your specific situation, they may suggest a variety of approaches to address the challenges you are facing. Some common treatment options include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is a form of talk therapy that seeks to help individuals recognize and change thought patterns that are leading to distress.

  • Cognitive processing trauma therapy (CPT), which is a type of CBT developed specifically for those experiencing PTSD. Research suggests that CPT may be effective in helping adults who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse, in particular.

  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), which is used to help individuals manage the distress they feel due to past trauma. It involves focusing on eye movement while talking about traumatic experiences with the goal of changing how individuals view their trauma.

  • Narrative exposure therapy (NET), which involves an individual telling their life story with the help of a therapist. This approach can help them develop a complete narrative of their trauma, which may give them a feeling of greater control.

Speaking with a mental health professional about your situation can help them decide which method might be most helpful for you.

Seeking Help In Overcoming Childhood Trauma

Each person’s situation is different, so it’s important to find a method of support or treatment that works best for you. Seeking in-person therapy with a qualified professional in your area is one option. You can find available providers through an online search. Or, if you prefer receiving treatment from the comfort of your own home, online therapy may be your preferred option. One study found that those who participated in online therapy found it to be even easier to form a connection with their therapist than those who did in-person sessions, which can be helpful when it comes to handling sensitive topics like childhood trauma. 

Another study suggested that online therapy produced promising results for those dealing with the impacts of trauma, specifically. More than half of the study participants showed “reliable change and clinically significant improvement” regarding trauma-related symptoms. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can connect with a mental health professional who can help you process trauma from your past. You’ll be matched with a licensed, qualified therapist based on your answers to a questionnaire, and you’ll be able to meet with them via phone call, video call, and/or chat. See below for reviews of BetterHelp counselors from individuals in similar situations.

Counselor Reviews

“Leann is amazing. She takes her time in first laying down some ground rules and expectations. She is very easy to speak with and I feel she is listening to everything I say. Our messages can get very lengthy, but she doesn’t miss a detail. She makes me feel like she’s an old friend. She makes me feel like she cares. I appreciate that.”

betterhelp therapist leann moore

Wondering How To Manage The Impacts Of Childhood Trauma?

“I’ve been holding in a lot of trauma that trails back to my childhood. I was matched to Miranda and she has just been wonderful. She seems to genuinely care about me and would chat with me in between scheduled sessions just to make sure I’m ok. I haven’t had someone that I can be completely open with and it is so refreshing to not have to hide my past or present traumas. I think only Miranda knows the real me. It’s also nice to know that someone randomly thinks of you and messages you to let you know that they’re thinking of you.”

betterhelp therapist miranda tamburello

Takeaway

Even if it occurred years or decades ago, the experience of childhood trauma can still impact an individual in their adult life. Working with a mental health professional can help a person understand how trauma may be affecting them and work toward healing.

For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns

Speak with a Licensed Therapist
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.