Childhood trauma can affect anyone, and the effects can last well into adulthood. It can cause mental, physical, and behavioural effects that, if left untreated, can worsen over time.
What Is Childhood Trauma?
Childhood trauma is a significant, often threatening event in a child’s life that overwhelms their ability to cope. Although it is not a defined mental health condition, it can contribute to many conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and mood disorders in both children and adults.
There are many potential traumatic events that children can face, such as:
- Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
- Financial, emotional, or physical neglect
- Medical trauma such as chronic illness, accidents, and emergency hospitalisations
- Household and familial challenges including divorce, exposure to domestic violence, and a family member struggling with a substance use disorder
- The loss of a loved one
These traumatic events can be considered adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), potentially traumatic experiences that occur in early childhood. They are incredibly common, with approximately half of people surveyed reporting at least one ACE before age eighteen. They do not necessarily cause trauma, but the more a person experiences, the higher the risk is.
Studies on ACEs show a strong link between multiple traumatic events and serious difficulties in later life. People with high numbers of ACEs are more likely to suffer from cancer and emphysema and have a reduced immune system.
People with a history of multiple ACEs are also much more likely to struggle with a substance use disorder, poor academic achievement and even early death.
ACEs and Toxic Stress
Learning how to cope with stressors is a part of life. However, experiencing recurrent abuse, trauma, or ACEs can affect the development of children. ACEs such as abuse or a dysfunctional home life trigger the stress response in children, affecting their brain, immune system, and even cardiovascular system. Experiencing multiple ACEs can cause an elevated and long-lasting stress response, damaging the body and brain over time.
Childhood Trauma in Adulthood
Some people may not realise that they have experienced childhood trauma. However, traumatic events can come in many shapes and forms and do not have to stem directly from situations of abuse.
Common signs of childhood trauma in adults can include:
- A fear of abandonment – children who had neglectful or distant caregivers can have an intense fear of abandonment as adults. They may become jealous or possessive of their partners and friends, as they are constantly afraid they will leave them.
- Difficulty sleeping – people may have nightmares about traumatic events or struggle with anxiety so much that it affects their sleep. A lack of sleep can worsen trauma symptoms, leading to a vicious cycle.
- People-pleasing – those with a history of childhood trauma may have found that fawning or trying to please their abusers was a way to keep them safe. This can translate to people-pleasing behaviour as an adult, and people can struggle to say no to others and feel responsible for the reactions and feelings of others.
- Poor memory – trauma can affect how memories are formed, and those who experienced traumatic events in childhood can struggle with gaps in their memory. However, the future can also feel distant and far away, and this lack of future-oriented thinking can encourage more risk-taking behaviour.
- Hyperarousal – trauma can cause people to be on high alert, constantly looking out for sources of danger. Hyperarousal can make people more irritable and anxious and cause an exaggerated startle response.
- Physical health conditions – childhood trauma can make people much more vulnerable to developing physical health conditions. For example, 58% of people with migraines reported histories of childhood abuse or neglect.
Trauma can also cause the development of serious conditions such as eating disorders. One study found that around 30% of those receiving treatment for an eating disorder had experienced sexual abuse in childhood. Some people may use maladaptive coping mechanisms such as bingeing, purging and controlling how much they eat to regain some control over their bodies or escape painful memories and emotions.
Healing Childhood Trauma
If left untreated, childhood trauma can have a significant impact on adults. However, healing is possible, and there is a multitude of avenues open to people, including:
- Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy – IFS therapy focuses on the different parts of a person and what they need. These parts have different roles, with the Exiles associated with feelings of pain and trauma, the Managers trying to control everyday life, and the Firefighters reacting when the Exile breaks through. IFS aims to create harmony between the parts and develop the Self while still allowing the parts to be heard and honoured.
- Somatic Experiencing – a common reaction to trauma, especially in children, is to freeze. The energy trapped in this freeze response can linger for years, causing many physical symptoms, and it can be hard to release. Somatic Experiencing provides a way to release this pent-up energy in healthy ways and can help to resolve issues such as chronic pain, muscle tension, and sleep problems.
- Tai Chi – Tai Chi involves a series of gentle exercises which help to foster a greater mind-body connection. It can help to reduce stress and anxiety surrounding past traumatic events, helping to provide balance to both the brain and body.
Healing and managing childhood trauma is not linear, and the process can be challenging. In some cases, trauma can be incredibly painful, and people may need a higher level of care. Residential trauma treatment provides a safe space for those who feel a typical clinic will not meet their needs. Here, they can heal while fully supported by therapists.
Childhood trauma can have profound effects well into adulthood and requires specialised treatment to address properly. Along with affecting physical and mental health, unresolved childhood trauma can affect adult relationships and contribute to developing serious conditions such as eating disorders. Childhood trauma is treatable, and help is available. If you or a loved one is struggling, do not hesitate to seek professional help.
If you have a client or know of someone struggling with anything you have read in this blog, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and outpatient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).
 Matilda A, Angela D (September 2015). The Impact of Adverse Experiences in the Home on Children and Young People (PDF) (Report). UCL Institute of Health Equity.
 Bransfield RC (June 2022). “Adverse Childhood Events, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Infectious Encephalopathies and Immune-Mediated Disease”. Healthcare. 10 (6): 1127. doi:10.3390/healthcare10061127. PMC 9222834. PMID 35742178.
 Tietjen, G. E., Brandes, J. L., Peterlin, B. L., et al. (2010). Childhood maltreatment and migraine (part I). Prevalence and adult revictimization: A multicenter headache clinic survey. Headache, 50, 20-31.
 Behar, R, Arancibia, M, Sepulveda, E, Muga, A. Child Sexual Abuse as a Risk Factor in Eating Disorders. Eating Disorders: Prevalence, Risk Factors and Treatment Options. Nova Science Publishers. 2016;149-172.