Some events can keep you emotionally stuck at the age of trauma. But as you begin to heal, it’s possible to get “unstuck.”
As you grow up, it’s common to use child-like coping methods to get your needs met. Temper tantrums, uncontrollable tears, and impulsive behaviors are all expected. As you get older, it’s typical to “outgrow” these behaviors, replacing them with more emotionally mature responses.
But experiencing trauma at an early age can disrupt your emotional growth. You might not outgrow child-like actions — instead, they may remain as coping methods, causing problems in your relationships, work-life, and even your sense of self.
With proper treatment and support, you can begin to understand the reasons behind your emotional responses and behaviors and move toward healing.
Traumatic events can overwhelm your body and mind, leaving a lasting mark on your mood, relationship, and sense of self long after the trauma has ended.
When trauma impairs your ability to develop full emotional maturity, this is known as arrested psychological development. Trauma can “freeze” your emotional response at the age you experienced it.
When you feel or act emotionally younger than your actual age, this is known as age regression.
Age regression means that, later in life, child-like behavior patterns can appear again when we feel unsafe or when we encounter triggers related to previous trauma — even if we’re unaware that we’ve been triggered.
“When an individual is traumatized, especially early on in life, the memory of the trauma is stored both in the brain and the body,” explains Carla Marie Manly, PhD, a clinical psychologist, trauma specialist, and author based in Sonoma, California. “As a result, if healing does not occur, the traumatic incident can impede healthy development.
“In essence, depending on the severity of the trauma, [your] entire way of being may be formed around the traumatic incident,” Manly adds.
This is because, on a neurobiological level, the trauma is not properly processed. It can rewire your brain in such a way that ultimately influences your thought patterns and behavioral responses as you get older, she says.
Though many therapists and counselors believe that trauma can cause age regression and leave people stuck at a certain age, few research studies are looking into its validity and usefulness in trauma therapy.
When does trauma-related regression happen?
Trauma that affects your development can occur at any time during childhood. Examples of early life traumas include:
Melissa Lapides, a licensed marriage and family therapist, psychotherapist, and trauma specialist in California, explains age regression as a survival mechanism. “Because it wasn’t safe for the body to process [at the time], the trapped emotions unconsciously dictate your behaviors and relationships unknowingly,” she says.
“It doesn’t necessarily make you stuck at a certain age, but instead, [you are] acting out the emotional wounding that happened at that age,” Lapides adds.
Trauma can cause anyone to get “stuck” in this way. It might occur in people with mental health issues related to trauma, such as:
The signs or symptoms that someone is emotionally stuck vary from person to person and can depend on how old you were when the trauma occurred and the nature of the trauma.
Behaviors associated with age regression could include adult temper tantrums, difficulty with impulse control, or overly clingy or dependent behavior.
Behaviors classed as regressive can
- needing a comfort toy
Still, these are not necessarily negative coping methods, and they can help many people feel comforted, safe, and loved.
Some general signs of unresolved trauma could include:
- fear-based behaviors, such as excessive anxiety or controlling behavior
- a tendency to shut down or dissociate
- people pleasing behavior
- knowing you want to do something in life, but feel like you can’t get there
- feeling easily emotionally overwhelmed
- difficulty maintaining close relationships
- unstable interpersonal relationships
What does trauma-associated age regression look like?
- Revisiting a childhood home, or visiting your parents, may activate child-like behaviors that were present at the age of trauma experienced when growing up.
- Children facing stressful situations, like major life changes, may start bed-wetting or thumb-sucking when they had previously outgrown those behaviors.
- Adults may respond to conflict by avoiding mature conversation topics that are complicated or stressful, even when it impacts their relationships.
“Most people understand [trauma] as tragic, violent, or catastrophic incidents, like combat trauma or natural disasters,” says Claire Corey, PhD, a clinical psychologist and trauma specialist. She adds that trauma can come from events that weren’t registered as significant at the time, but they left a mark, nonetheless.
As well as one-off events, trauma can result from repeated events, like an abusive relationship or childhood neglect. Complex trauma — the kind that arises from repeated events — often stems from childhood experiences.
Every person’s response to trauma is unique — so an event that might cause one person to regress or get “stuck” might not impact someone else in the same way, even if they lived through similar experiences.
“You can have 10 people survive a small plane crash, and each person’s response to the traumatic event will be different based upon their history, genetics, and their actual experience of the traumatic event,” Manly explains.
In other words, “trauma isn’t an event that happens. It’s how you process the event,” Lapides says. If you receive support or help while going through a traumatic event, the trauma is less likely to stick with you.
Some common causes of unresolved trauma Manly and Lapides have worked within clients include:
- abuse or neglect in childhood
- emotionally unavailable parents or caregivers
- bullying at school
- molestation or sexual assault
- auto accidents
- surviving natural disasters
- abusive work situations
- emotionally abusive relationships
With proper help from a licensed therapist, many people can integrate their traumatic experiences and become “unstuck.”
Becoming unstuck will mean different things to different people. For many, it may mean developing more mature emotional responses and relying less on unhelpful, child-like coping methods.
For example, if your trauma has resulted in adult temper tantrums to cope with conflict, becoming unstuck could mean you’re able to turn to more adaptive methods, such as:
- deep breathing
- conflict resolution strategies
“I worked with many people who have healed from their trauma to remarkable degrees,” Manly says. “From veterans who go on to marry and enjoy connected, healthy relationships to victims of horrific childhood abuse, I have been fortunate to witness the progress of so many individuals who worked hard to become unstuck.”
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), specific therapies that can be especially effective for helping you heal from trauma, including:
- cognitive processing therapy (CPT)
- prolonged exposure (PE) therapy
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy
- narrative exposure therapy
- somatic therapies
- mindfulness-based therapies
If you think you’re emotionally stuck in your trauma, you might find relief by talking with a therapist or other mental health professional. You can find a therapist online or by using our Find a Therapist resource page.
Other helpful trauma resources include: