Childhood trauma can impact your relationships as an adult, leading to persistent feelings of loneliness. We look at the reasons why.
Loneliness, or a lack of meaningful connection, comes in many forms. It can feel like the absence of friendships or community. It can arise even when you’re physically around other people, but you feel a lack of emotional closeness with them.
Much of who you are as an adult is influenced by your early years of life. If you experienced trauma in childhood, you may have trouble with emotional closeness, maintaining relationships, and feeling safe with other people as an adult. Each of these factors can lead to deep feelings of loneliness.
You might have developed a tendency to push others away, avoid intimacy, or experience frequent relationship conflict — despite actually longing for a secure relationship to help you feel less alone. Working with a therapist can help you break the cycle.
Childhood trauma can lead to loneliness in adulthood because of the way it impacts your social interactions and ability to form meaningful connections.
According to a 2018 study, people who had experienced childhood or adulthood trauma reported higher loneliness-related distress than those without a trauma history. This included social and emotional loneliness.
As Jessica Frick, LPC, explains, “Trauma significantly affects the brain and how it processes threats — survivors are often more watchful and consider people threatening more often.” This is known as hypervigilance.
“Often, people who’ve been through trauma experience difficulty opening up to others and trusting them, especially if they weren’t supported or believed if they talked to someone about their trauma,” she adds.
You may also experience a fear of being hurt if you get too close to others.
“This leads to self-destructive behavior: the survivor avoids connecting with others, then people start to think the survivor doesn’t want to connect, which makes the survivor’s worries that much stronger,” Frick says.
Attachment theory says that your early life attachment to a primary caregiver can affect your adult personality. If you experienced trauma at the hands of a caregiver, you may have developed attachment trauma.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Ryan C. Warner describes the impact childhood trauma can have on attachment.
“Childhood relational trauma is extremely damaging to one’s self-esteem, self-image, and ability to form strong bonds with others,” he says.
“It is born from being abused or neglected during childhood and can permanently affect people’s ability to create healthy relationships. People who have experienced relational trauma may fear intimacy, have problems trusting others, and feel insecure.
“Childhood shapes a lot of how we behave as adults,” Warner continues. “If a child has no reference for healthy relationships and has been abused by those closest to them, they will not know how to shape their own relationships in the future.”
“Childhood trauma impacts us at our core. It rewires the brain and completely shifts how we perceive the world — especially when it comes to relationships,” says Candin Phillips, LPC.
Childhood trauma can have a range of causes, such as abuse, neglect, or a serious accident.
When we experience trauma, the brain and nervous system adapt to protect themselves. This means that you feel a deep need to avoid situations that remind you of the trauma.
If the trauma happened in the context of a close relationship, it makes sense that you have trouble trusting other people later in life.
“Childhood trauma most likely means that as a child, there were adults that were not safe, consistent, or emotionally mature,” Phillips adds. “These are vital for a child to feel safe and secure.”
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all threshold at which childhood trauma changes the way you relate to others. Adverse early experiences ranging from a single incident to complex trauma can leave lingering effects.
“The impact is lasting whether it was a one-time event, several occurrences, or the child grew up in toxic environments where they weren’t sure what version of their parent/guardian they were going to get at any given moment,” Phillips explains.
1. Find a therapist
To overcome adult loneliness from childhood trauma, psychologist Kyler Shumway, PsyD, recommends finding a therapist who specializes in trauma.
“You don’t have to do this alone,” he says. “Therapy is the first line of treatment and the most effective way to work through the pain caused by trauma.”
There are many types of therapy for trauma, with cognitive processing therapy being a common choice.
2. Take risks
“Be willing to take risks, meet new people, and let others into your life. You may be hurt again, but maybe not. Maybe you’ll meet people who care about people, who can give you love and care,” says Shumway.
“And maybe you’ll learn to shake those old traumatic beliefs and replace them with new ones through corrective emotional experiences.”
3. Adopt a growth mindset
Shumway also stresses the importance of a growth mindset, a term coined by Dr. Carol Dweck. This mindset is about focusing on growth and improving over time.
“If you believe that you are stuck in loneliness and nothing can change (which would be a fixed mindset), then you are probably right. But, if you believe that things can improve, that you can learn to find connection and belonging, then there’s always a chance that things will get better.”
In fact, many people notice positive changes emerging along their healing journey — such as improved relationships, a greater sense of personal strength, or deeper spiritual connections. This is known as post-traumatic growth.
4. Practice self-love
According to Dimitrios Pexaras, LPCC, “The key to not feeling lonely comes from working on self-love and self-awareness and treatment of trauma.”
“The moment people start […] making sense of what happened to them and why and that it’s not their fault, then they start loving themselves more and understanding themselves. It’s a process that takes time but it’s totally workable and I’ve seen it plenty of times in my practice as a therapist.”
5. Take small social steps
While it might seem intimidating to meet up with people right now, whether new groups or old friends, consider taking small, comfortable steps.
For instance, you might send a text to a friend you haven’t spoken to for a while to see how they are. Or, you could organize to go for a cup of coffee.
Joining social clubs based on your hobbies can help, too. And support groups for people who have experienced trauma can feel like safe spaces to meet new people.
If you’re experiencing loneliness after childhood trauma, understanding the connection between the two can help you change your relationships with others.
It’s not your fault if you’ve been withdrawing from social connections or having trouble with relationships. Instead, it may be due to the self-protective responses you learned as a child.