Sometimes the things we experience as kids stay with us through adulthood. That is the case with trauma.
Childhood trauma can affect everyone differently. For some, it can have significant mental health effects. For others, it might mean the development of chronic physical health conditions.
How trauma affects you depends on many things, including your temperament, resources, and environment. In every case, healing is possible.
Childhood trauma, also known as developmental trauma, is any significant experience that overwhelms a child’s ability to function and cope.
Trauma usually involves circumstances that are perceived as highly threatening — physically, emotionally, or both. But what’s traumatic for you may not be for someone else, and vice versa.
Childhood trauma isn’t a formal diagnosis in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5).
Instead, it’s listed as a possible contributing factor for several mental health conditions, including anxiety and mood disorders.
Because of this, there isn’t a formal list of causes or symptoms of trauma.
What may affect one child may not have the same impact on another.
In general, traumatic experiences for a child may include:
- chronic illnesses
- medical procedures
- emergency transport
- other experiences involving pain or injury
- difficult divorce
- family mental illness
- exposure to domestic violence and intimate partner violence
- family substance use disorder
- incarcerated relatives
- loss of a loved one, sudden or anticipated
Environmental adversity and social influences
- natural disasters (witnessing, experiencing, or losing loved ones to one)
- poverty and other economic challenges
- acts of violence, including hate crimes and terrorism
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) vs. trauma
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are events or situations that can negatively impact a child’s mental and physical development.
While ACEs carry the potential to cause trauma symptoms, they don’t always have this effect.
Trauma occurs when a child doesn’t have the resources or isn’t able to cope with an ACE, for example.
Childhood trauma may have long-term effects that affect how you live your life as an adult. A multitude of trauma effects can be experienced long after the initial shock has faded away.
Long term effects of childhood trauma
On the side of mental health, one of the most common diagnoses associated with trauma is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD is often a result of exposure to a traumatic event during childhood or adulthood. This event may be a one-time incident or a repetitive occurrence.
Approximately 3.5% of adults in the United States experience symptoms of PTSD every year, and an estimated 1 in 11 will receive a PTSD diagnosis in their lifetime.
Symptoms of PTSD include:
- intrusive thoughts
- avoidance of people, places, or situations that may be reminders of the traumatic event
- inability to remember details about the traumatic event
- distorted beliefs about self and others
- self-critical thoughts or beliefs
- feelings of detachment
- emotional unavailability
- social withdrawal
- lack of positive emotions
- reckless behavior
- difficulty sleeping
- inability to trust others
- insecure or anxious attachment style
But not all traumatic events result in PTSD.
Other mental health conditions may also develop from experiencing childhood trauma. They’re not mutually exclusive. Sometimes, you may live with symptoms of two or more of these conditions.
Some of the most common ones include:
- major depression disorder (MDD)
- generalized anxiety disorder
- specific phobia
- panic disorder
- conduct disorder
- substance use disorder
Your long-term physical health may also change as a result of what you’ve experienced as a child.
Childhood trauma has been linked to increased chances of:
- heart disease
- sexually transmitted diseases
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
Symptoms that aren’t a formal diagnosis
Sometimes, experiencing a traumatic childhood event doesn’t result in a diagnosable condition.
Protective factors, such as certain types of temperament or a strong support network, may buffer some of the effects of trauma.
It’s possible that some people may not experience significant lasting, adverse effects of trauma.
Sometimes, the results of trauma are less noticeable or impairing but still present. This will look different for every person.
Maybe you developed a bird phobia, or you may rely on manipulation tactics in your relationships.
Other effects can be more disruptive to your adult life.
Childhood trauma can impact how you:
- Build bonds in relationships. You may be afraid to trust anyone fully or be afraid to commit in a relationship.
- Express or regulate your emotions. You may have difficulty saying what you’re thinking without emotional outburst.
- Respond to authority figures. You may have an intense dislike or mistrust of authority figures.
- Handle stressful situations. You may become more easily overwhelmed in times of stress or have lower tolerance to frustration.
- Behave socially. You may avoid certain types of social events or speaking with certain people.
- Perform at school or work. You may be absent-minded or unable to focus clearly.
- Envision your future success. You may doubt you have the ability to go far in life.
When you’ve experienced childhood trauma, you may not realize how it impacts your life as an adult.
The effects can be subtle, like locking yourself into a job you hate, for example. Deep down, this choice might be due to self-doubt as a result of the trauma you experienced.
Only a mental health professional can help you explore and identify how childhood trauma has affected you.
Like adults, children can develop PTSD and other mental health conditions as a result of trauma.
The symptoms of trauma in children, however, are often complex. Age plays an important role — children in preschool won’t have the same opportunities for expressing themselves as children in middle school.
Age-related symptoms of childhood trauma may include:
- excessive crying and screaming
- language development delays
- hypervigilance or alertness
- recurrent nightmares
- loss of appetite
- weight fluctuations
- clinginess or separation anxiety from adult caregivers
- avoidance of some adults
- acting out the trauma during play
- physical symptoms, like headaches and tummy aches
- impaired social skills
- sudden changes in behavior
- difficulty sleeping
- changes in concentration and school performance
- expressing guilt or shame
- constantly talking about the event
- sudden changes in behavior
Middle school and high school children
- substance use
- self-harm behaviors
- eating disorders
- hazardous sexual activity
- anger outbursts
- behaviors that put them in jeopardy
- depression and anxiety
- not typical social withdrawal
PTSD in children
The symptoms of PTSD in children are similar to those in adults.
Children may particularly experience:
- acting out the traumatic incident in play
- sudden changes in behavior
- episodes of intense irritability and anger
- distrust or fear of others
- symptoms of depression
- event denial
- absence of positive emotions
- avoidance of places and people
- changes in sleep patterns
- bed wetting
- reluctance to stay alone even for a moment
Children may exhibit these behaviors for several reasons, including other mental health conditions, physical conditions, or everyday stress responses.
It’s common to have days where they feel overwhelmed, exhausted, or down.
When symptoms persist, or if there’s no apparent acute cause (school test stress, performances), a traumatic event may be a possibility.
It’s highly advisable to seek the support of a mental health professional. Only they can diagnose and treat a condition accurately.
Childhood PTSD vs. childhood traumatic stress
Childhood PTSD is a clinical diagnosis with specific symptoms outlined in the DSM-5.
Childhood traumatic stress is a phrase used to describe symptoms of distress from a traumatic experience that don’t meet DSM-5 criteria but still impacts how a child moves forward in life.
All children with PTSD will experience childhood traumatic stress, but not all children with childhood traumatic stress will be diagnosed with PTSD.
Symptoms of childhood trauma in both children and adults can range in severity. It depends on protective factors, resources, as well as the event itself.
Even when the effects of trauma aren’t as evident to you, speaking with a mental health professional can help process unresolved emotions.
As a coping mechanism, you may not be fully aware of the impact childhood trauma has had on your life.
In every case, trauma symptoms can be managed, and healing is possible.