9 Symptoms of Childhood Trauma in Adulthood

Ignoring childhood trauma can lead to mental health conditions in adulthood related to childhood trauma in adulthood.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), one in seven children experiences abuse annually. Also, one in five high school students report being bullied, and at least 1,000 kids are treated in emergency rooms after being assaulted. SAMSHA says that two-thirds of children experience at least one trauma by age 16.

Only a tiny percentage of children receive trauma-related treatments to learn how to cope, confront, and move forward. Instead, they take the trauma into adulthood, which can cause significant distress.

In this article, you will learn more about the most common symptoms of childhood trauma in adulthood as well as the treatment options available.

What is Trauma?

Trauma can be both a noun and a verb. Trauma is an event or situation that negatively impacts your life. Examples include sexual or physical abuse, natural disasters, unexpected loss of a loved one, and war combat. A trauma for one person may not be perceived as trauma for another. 

The American Psychological Association defines trauma as an emotional response to a tragedy. While initial reactions are often normal, some people can’t move on from the event. Their emotions may begin to interfere with daily living.

Occasionally, a person may compartmentalize the traumatic event to help them cope. The mind separates emotions from trauma as a defense mechanism. At the time, it allows the person to dissociate from the horrible event. While this coping method may help now, it can lead to problems in adulthood.

It’s important to note that a child does not always have to experience the trauma firsthand. It can have the same effect on children who witness someone they love being harmed. For example, if a child watches a parent undergo physical abuse.

Symptoms of Childhood Trauma in Adulthood

Below are nine symptoms of childhood trauma in adulthood. If you have one or more symptoms, work with a trauma therapist. They have numerous techniques to help you overcome your trauma and alleviate your symptoms.

Difficulty Trusting Others

Children are typically naturally trusting of others. However, when someone they love harms them or betrays them somehow, they lose their trust. They begin to feel as if they cannot trust anyone. Trust issues interfere with relationships if not dealt with early. Some adults may even sabotage healthy relationships to avoid feeling hurt again.

Misusing Drugs or Alcohol

Some adults with childhood trauma symptoms find unhealthy coping methods, such as misusing drugs and alcohol. When they first start drinking or taking drugs, they feel relief from the effects of childhood trauma. This doesn’t last long, though. The more they misuse substances, the more they develop tolerance, dependence, and possible addiction.

Self-Destructive Behaviors

Without even realizing it, a person with childhood trauma may put themselves in harmful situations as an adult. They wonder why bad things always happen to them. They feel like a victim in all failed relationships. They may even choose behaviors that mimic the trauma. In relationships, you fear abandonment but act in ways that push people away.

Poor Self-Perception

Traumas that make you feel violated, betrayed, and fearful can also make you feel shame, guilt, and unworthy. They negatively impact your self-esteem. How you perceive yourself influences how you relate to others. You may seek compliments from others to outweigh complaints about yourself. You may allow people to treat you poorly because you feel you deserve it. You make negative self-statements and, at the same time, strive for perfection.

Lack of Memories

Dissociation is another defense mechanism in which a person detaches their thoughts, feelings, and body from the trauma as it occurs. It is an unconscious way of protecting yourself from experiencing abuse. The moments that occur during detachment are not stored in your memory and, therefore, cannot be recalled later, like in adulthood. On the one hand, this is a good thing because you can’t remember details of the trauma. Depending on how long you remain detached, you may not have memories for days, weeks, or months following the trauma, even when good things occurred.

Overreacting Emotionally

Having childhood trauma in adulthood can make someone overreact to some situations. If something reminds them of the trauma, they tend to go overboard and become hypervigilant. They often expect something terrible to happen. Constantly worrying, being easy to startle, expecting the worst, and feeling unsafe for no reason are other examples of emotional dysregulation associated with childhood trauma.

Physical and Mental Health Disorders

Adults with childhood trauma experience more physical and mental health disorders than those without. They are more likely to develop a weak immune system, anxiety, depression, chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, and attachment disorders.

Can’t Handle Stress

Being able to cope with stress is an essential part of adulthood. Those with childhood trauma struggle when faced with stress. Some may regress to child-like behaviors, throwing tantrums or acting violently. Other adults may turn to alcohol or drugs. There are even some adults who may talk like a child or engage in thumb-sucking. All reactions are an attempt to comfort themselves and ease stress.

Sleep Disturbances

Sleep is one of the most important factors for mental and physical health. During sleep, the body and brain are restored from the day’s stressors. Childhood trauma in adults may cause sleep disturbances, such as nightmares and insomnia, preventing quality sleep.

Treatment for Childhood Trauma in Adulthood

Overcoming childhood trauma is possible. With help from the right therapist and psychiatrist, you can quickly confront and move on from the trauma by participating in therapies like the following:

  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) helps rewire your brain to move past the trauma
  • Trauma Resilience Model (TRM) helps you learn how to handle distress so you are no longer stuck in the past
  • Trauma-Focused Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (TFCBT) focuses on the specific trauma and teaches you coping skills to deal with it appropriately
  • Ketamine-Assisted Therapy (KAP) assists in opening the mind to receive positive suggestions from your therapist to change your perspective on the trauma

If you have symptoms of childhood trauma in adulthood, contact the Mental Health Center today to get the treatment you deserve.

Frequently Asked Questions

In this section, we will explore the most frequently asked questions pertaining to childhood trauma in adults. As the effects of early-life adversity continue to garner attention, many individuals seek to better understand the complexities of trauma and its long-lasting impacts.

What is the most common type of childhood trauma?

The most common type of childhood trauma is emotional abuse or neglect. This form of trauma occurs when a child’s emotional needs are consistently unmet, ignored, or invalidated. It can manifest in various ways, such as verbal attacks, manipulation, belittling, or withholding affection. Emotional abuse has long-lasting effects on a child’s mental health, self-esteem, and ability to form healthy relationships in adulthood.

What are signs of unhealed childhood trauma?

Signs of unhealed childhood trauma may include anxiety, depression, difficulty forming relationships, emotional dysregulation, low self-esteem, intrusive memories, trust issues, self-destructive behavior, chronic stress, substance abuse, dissociation, sleep disturbances, somatic symptoms, difficulty with boundaries, feelings of guilt and shame, fear of abandonment, and emotional numbness. These manifestations can vary greatly between individuals, but together they may indicate unresolved trauma.

What are 4 ways childhood trauma can affect adults?

Childhood trauma can affect adults in several ways, including negatively impacting mental health, relationships, physical health, and cognitive function.

What mental illness is caused by childhood trauma in adults?

Childhood trauma can potentially contribute to various mental illnesses in adults, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders, depression, and borderline personality disorder (BPD). The severity and type of mental illness may vary depending on the nature, duration, and frequency of the trauma, as well as the individual’s genetic predisposition and coping mechanisms. It is important to recognize that not everyone exposed to childhood trauma will develop a mental illness, but it increases the risk.