Is Childhood Trauma Holding You Back?

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated May 1, 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). Free support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Almost half of all children in the United States experience at least one potentially traumatic adverse childhood experience (ACE). Having such an experience in your formative years may affect how you function as an adult—even if you don’t realize it. Below, we’ll look more closely at the subject of childhood trauma, its impact on adulthood, and how you can help manage its impact.

iStock
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. Furthermore, when a child is exposed to an unsafe environment, they may be vulnerable to different traumas that might lead to childhood post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some examples of traumatic events that a child may go through include:

  • Natural disasters, such as floods, hurricanes, or earthquakes
  • Major illness, whether it affects 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 can impact the likelihood that a person will develop traumatic stress include the event's severity, the child’s proximity to the event, and other past instances of trauma.

Also, children may 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 5-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 various ways.

The impact of childhood trauma in adulthood

Experiencing trauma in childhood may lead to numerous challenges in adulthood. 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. However, that doesn’t mean childhood trauma will necessarily cause adults to develop specific mental illnesses.

If you would like to understand how adverse childhood experiences may impact your adult life, you might consider talking to a licensed online therapist with experience in trauma and its consequences.

How childhood trauma can affect attachment styles

According to attachment theory, an individual’s childhood experiences—including the presence or absence of trauma—can impact their attachment style as an adult. The four attachment styles are secure, anxious, disorganized, and avoidant. The last three are usually considered 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 were also linked to insecure attachment styles in general.

Rawpixel

Managing the effects of 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 valuable part of this process.

Depending on your situation, they may suggest various approaches to address your challenges. Some common treatment options include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a form of talk therapy that seeks to help individuals recognize and change thought patterns leading to distress.
  • Cognitive processing therapy (CPT), 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), used to help individuals manage the distress they feel due to past trauma. It involves focusing on eye movement while individuals talk about traumatic experiences to change how they 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.

Seeking help in overcoming childhood trauma

A couple are sitting on a couch across from a therapist; they are looking at her and smiling.
iStock
Wondering how to manage the impacts of childhood trauma?

Each person’s situation is different, and a therapist can find a method of support or treatment that works best for you. Seeking in-person therapy with a qualified professional is one option. You can find available providers through an online search. However, if you don’t like the idea of going to a therapist’s office to discuss traumatic events, you might try online therapy, which research has demonstrated to be just as effective as in-office therapy. 

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 connect with them via phone or video chat. You can also contact your therapist in between sessions via in-app messaging if you have any questions or concerns.

Below are some 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.”

“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.”

Takeaway

If you experienced trauma as a child, you don’t have to face it alone. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a therapist with experience helping people navigate the effects of traumatic childhood experiences. You can participate in therapy on your terms from the comfort of your home or anywhere you have an internet connection. Take the first step toward healing from childhood trauma and contact BetterHelp today.
Learn to heal from the impacts of trauma
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.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started