As children, it can be hard to determine what’s “normal” and what’s “not normal.” When something terrible happens, many children assume that that’s what usually happens in life. They might learn to expect certain adverse experiences. This can lead to negative impacts on development, which may play out in adulthood.
What is childhood trauma?
Childhood trauma happens when a child experiences or observes an intensely negative situation. Sometimes, childhood trauma occurs instantaneously and accidentally, such as a car crash. Other times, it can be a prolonged process through no fault of anyone’s, like when a parent dies of illness or becomes debilitatingly sick. Unfortunately, childhood trauma can also be an intentional act of a caregiver or adult, such as sexual, physical, or emotional abuse. Children can also suffer from the trauma of world events like natural disasters or war.
When children experience traumatic events, much like adults, their stress reactions become activated. Unlike adults, however, children lack the emotional and cognitive maturity to make sense of the situation or to express their distress. This leads to a collection of stress without an explanation or an exit route, which can leave the child feeling confused, overwhelmed, unnecessarily guilty, anxious, or depressed. Without a way to process through these feelings, the child can adopt harmful behaviors, thought patterns, or relationship habits.
Symptoms of childhood trauma in childhood
Children’s reactions to childhood trauma can look very different from adult trauma reactions. Children who experience childhood trauma may show somatic or behavioral issues, rather than explicitly emotional ones. This is because they lack the vocabulary and the perspective to connect the adverse event and how they’re feeling. They may feel a huge sense of lack of safety, which can manifest in a variety of ways, such as:
- Separation anxiety from a loved one
- Having troubles focusing in school or having high distractibility
- Lashing out at siblings or parents
- Throwing tantrums
- Excessive crying that’s not age appropriate
- Bullying other children
- Stomachaches, headaches, or body aches
- Avoiding situations or settings that remind them of the traumatic event
Symptoms of childhood trauma in adulthood
Sometimes, it’s not until later in life that we recognize trauma as “trauma.” Many people suppress painful memories as a way to move past them, however this suppression can negatively impact mood, relationships, and self-identity. Other people are aware of their trauma, however haven’t unpacked or accepted how their traumatic experience changed their life.
Common signs of childhood trauma that show up in adults include:
- Attachment issues that result in relationship conflicts
- Fear of abandonment that leads to staying in toxic relationships
- Self-medication to soothe pain, including substance abuse or self-harm
- Anxiety including panic attacks
- Depression or overwhelming sadness
- Feeling uncomfortable in certain situations or settings, despite no obvious threat
- Feelings of disconnection from those around them, including family members or loved ones
- Low self-esteem or low confidence
- Feelings of fear
- Feelings of helplessness
Adults can also have physical manifestations of trauma, including aches, digestion issues, skin issues, hair loss, and low immune function. Often, adults who experienced childhood trauma develop mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, substance abuse disorder, or personality disorders.
Therapy for childhood trauma
Getting professional therapeutic help to process through the impacts of childhood trauma can help clients regain control over their lives and find joy and meaning in relationships.
Therapy for children who have experienced trauma often looks like play therapy, music therapy, dance therapy, and other therapy modalities that give them an avenue to express what’s going on internally for them. Adults who engage in therapy to treat childhood trauma have many options for effective therapy modalities, all of which give the client space to talk through how their trauma impacts their lives, develop coping skills, and grow their resilience. Therapists will help clients find ways to accept that past and practice self-love to reclaim their lives.