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Childhood trauma

Healing From the Roots: How To Work Through Childhood Trauma

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10 min

Healing From the Roots: How To Work Through Childhood Trauma

Childhood trauma in adults is more common than many of us realize — research suggests that over two-thirds of people experience at least one traumatic event before turning 16. And chances are, you wouldn’t think of these events as traumatic. So what if you got scolded for grades below A? So what if that high-schooler picked on you every day? So what if your parents fought? People fight all the time, right?

For sure, no childhood is perfect, and many tough experiences help us grow. The problems begin when those things overwhelm us and make us feel we have no sense of safety or control. In this case, seemingly ordinary moments in childhood lay the groundwork for the trauma that can subtly shape our adult life.

If you’ve ever wondered whether your adult struggles have roots in childhood, this article is for you. I’ll explore what trauma is, how it happens, and, most importantly, the path to dealing with childhood trauma. 

Take the Breeze childhood trauma test for adults to learn how your childhood experiences might affect you.

Сhildhood trauma definition

Simply put, trauma happens when we experience fear in the face of helplessness and have no empathic person to help us process what we experience. That’s the definition given by Dr. Peter Levine, an industry leader in how to treat childhood trauma in adults.  

Since childhood is a critical period for the formation of self-definition and self-regulation, the consequences of negative traumatic experiences can be huge.

The consequences of unhealed childhood trauma

We were all shaped by the adults in the environment we grew up in. Sadly, some adults (coaches, teachers, close relatives) only contribute to children’s pain through sustained physical or emotional abuse, yelling, and negative messages. 

In response to this pain, children construct a ‘protective armor’ and adopt defensive behaviors, many of which prove destructive in the long run. Some examples of coping mechanisms are aggressive behavior, avoidance, dissociation, and perfectionism.

Imagine a girl whose parents encouraged her to be ambitious but reprimanded her for less-than-perfect grades. This girl might perpetually seek perfection as an adult, overworking and never finding satisfaction. The danger is gone — she’s now a grown-up with no need to answer to her parents — but the behavior remains. She may even subconsciously see her boss as a new kind of parent with similar demands. Emotionally, she’s still living with her parents’ reprimands, even though cognitively, she understands she has outgrown them.

To identify your unhelpful coping mechanisms, look for repeated patterns of behavior. Problems at work? You turn off the phone, lock the door, and welcome avoidance. Relationship troubles? You do everything to ensure they won’t stop loving you. When you don’t know how to get over childhood trauma, behavior patterns like these can undermine your happiness and well-being.

Overcoming childhood trauma is a struggle since its roots run so deep. The first step in healing childhood trauma is understanding what it is and how it materializes in more detail.

Common types of childhood trauma

There are many causes of trauma, but these are the most common experiences that surface during childhood trauma therapy.

Violence

Violence against children — whether physical, sexual, economic, or psychological — disrupts vital brain and nervous system growth, impacting lifelong physiological functions. Its consequences include cognitive impairments, which hinder educational and professional achievement. 

Exposure to violence is linked to risky behaviors like substance abuse and high-risk sexual activity. It increases the risk of anxiety and depression and can even lead to suicide. 

What’s more, violence tends to perpetuate, with children exposed to abuse more likely to become abusers or experience further abuse. However, releasing childhood trauma can help break that cycle. 

Terrorist acts, war, and natural disasters

Research shows that children, women, and older adults are often more vulnerable to the psychological effects of natural and man-made disasters.

Childhood exposure to terrorism, armed conflict, or forced displacement leads to higher chances of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, difficulties in forming and maintaining relationships, and a higher risk of engaging in self-destructive behaviors in adulthood. These experiences can also significantly impact a person’s ability to trust in others, their sense of safety, and their overall emotional resilience.

Sudden or violent loss of a close person

Trauma is not only about a bad childhood. Experiencing the sudden or violent loss of a loved one during the early years can also be profoundly traumatic. A child may experience overwhelming emotions of anger and guilt and be left with questions about why the person chose to leave and whether they could have done something to prevent it. These can continue through to adulthood.

Divorce or parental absence

For a child, feeling like an orphan despite having living parents can be just as traumatic as the loss of a significant adult. In psychology, attachment theory tells us that adult care is essential for a child’s well-being. When this crucial attachment is lacking, it can lead to developmental delays.

Individuals who have experienced parental divorce might encounter challenges in establishing and maintaining intimate relationships. Additionally, they struggle with trust issues, which impacts their ability to form deep connections.

Substance abuse

Surviving childhood trauma, like exposure to substance abuse, may lead to an increased vulnerability to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, persistent stress, and difficulty in forming healthy relationships. 

Individuals from such backgrounds often struggle with emotional regulation, which leads to impulsivity and emotional instability. Trust issues can foster a cycle of self-doubt and fear, and the likelihood of developing problems with alcohol or narcotic substances in adulthood is notably higher for those who witnessed substance abuse during childhood.

Bullying

Victims of bullying often exhibit physical symptoms like headaches and chronic pain. Research has found that children who are bullied show a two-fold increase in somatic symptoms and sleep problems compared to their non-bullied peers. 

The emotional impact of bullying manifests as elevated risks of depression, anxiety, alcohol, and substance misuse among those targeted. Cyberbullying, in particular, has strong associations with depression, anxiety, self-esteem issues, and somatic symptoms. Most concerning is the link between bullying and self-harm, with a significantly higher level of suicidal thoughts and attempts reported among bullying victims. 

Disorders caused by childhood trauma

For many people, unresolved childhood trauma doesn’t just affect psychological well-being: it can have physical effects, too. Some examples are frequent headaches, unexplained pain, or stomach troubles that have no apparent physical cause. Trauma can also lead to poor sleep and insomnia. 

Not everyone is affected by childhood trauma to the same degree. For example, you might find that you experience the symptoms above only rarely or only in certain situations. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a stronger manifestation of trauma with the following symptoms:

  • Emotional distress and difficulty in accomplishing daily activities 
  • Hypervigilance and avoidance behaviors 
  • Emotional numbness 
  • Feelings of depression and anxiety 
  • Negative self-perception 
  • Dissociation or dissociative disorders 
  • Addictive behaviors and struggles with addiction

More holistically, unhealed childhood trauma can lead to personality complexes and fears that deeply affect how we see the world, our patterns of behavior, and our interactions with others.

Let’s look at some examples.

Victim complex

As a child, Alexis constantly experienced neglect and dismissal of her emotional or physical needs. She was often told, “Stop crying,” “Don’t be angry, just forget it,” “Do it yourself,” and “You’re a big girl, why should I help you?” which led to a deep-seated belief in her unworthiness. 

Now an adult, Alexis constantly seeks validation and reassurance from others and perceives herself as a victim. She believes the world is totally against her and feels helpless in the face of negative events, which she attributes solely to external forces.

Inferiority complex 

Growing up, Sarah faced constant criticism and high expectations from her parents, fostering a deep-seated belief in her inherent inadequacy. Sarah’s overprotective and controlling parents limited her freedom to develop her ideas and often compared her unfavorably with her high-achieving brother, which increased her feelings of inferiority. 

As a grown-up, Sarah always aims to be perfect and fears anyone seeing her as anything less. She ends up micromanaging everything to make up for what she thinks she lacks. This creates stress and makes it hard for her to trust or let others help. 

A vicious circle of feeling insecure and needing to control everything will cloud her ability to form satisfying relationships until she finds ways to heal from childhood trauma.

Superiority complex

Joseph is Sarah’s opposite: growing up, he was consistently praised and placed on a pedestal, leading him to believe he was better than everyone else. As a child, he based his sense of worth on this fact. 

As an adult, Joseph struggles to maintain control and assert himself. He finds it difficult to accept criticism or acknowledge the views of others, which strains his relationships and hinders cooperation. This also prevents him from undergoing childhood trauma therapy for adults.

Don Juan complex

Matthew grew up with little emotional support. Arguments at home were common, and his parents, often absent, rarely showed affection. When he left home, Matthew started chasing after lots of short relationships, thinking they’d fill the emotional gap. He mistook attention for real emotional closeness simply because he didn’t know what such closeness was. 

Matthew’s adult life continues to be defined by short, fleeting relationships. Past trauma makes him seek validation and affection through quick romance, and struggles to establish long-term and more rewarding connections with people.

Fear of loneliness

Elizabeth spent her early childhood in a warm and loving family. Unfortunately, a tragic accident changed everything when her father passed away. Elizabeth felt abandoned without her father’s love and with her mother’s withdrawal into depression. With no parent to support her emotionally, she developed an insecure attachment style that hindered her emotional development. 

Today, Elizabeth has a profound fear of solitude as a place where there is no one to support or comfort her. She hates spending time alone and desperately seeks companionship to avoid feeling abandoned, which can lead her into difficult situations.

If you found yourself relating to any of these stories while reading, you may well be dealing with the consequences of your own childhood trauma. So what’s the way out? How can you recover from childhood trauma and achieve greater well-being?

Left unprocessed, childhood trauma has the potential to spill over into our adult lives and negatively impact our relationships, behavior, and sense of well-being

How to heal from childhood trauma

Dealing with childhood trauma isn’t a one-size-fits-all endeavor — it’s a path as unique as the experiences that shaped it. Your journey to getting over childhood trauma will vary greatly according to factors such as family dynamics, whether childhood influences persist, and current circumstances.

The steps below focus on using self-discovery, acceptance, and personal growth to overcome childhood trauma. I’ll also highlight instances when seeking professional childhood trauma therapy may be the best option.

Do I have childhood trauma? 

If you’re reading this, you probably already suspect that childhood trauma may be preventing you from living your best life. Your immediate question will be, “How do you heal from trauma?” But moving forward will be tough without finding the direct link between your adult self and a specific childhood moment. After all, plenty of other things can bring us down and affect our psychology.

To help with this step, you can take the Breeze childhood trauma test. This free and simple test will give you a safe space to understand yourself better, turn back the clock, and determine how your childhood may impact your adult life. 

Embrace your inner child 

Once you become aware of a connection between a traumatic childhood experience and your present state, it’s time to reconnect with your inner child. You need to compensate for the love and support you needed but might not have received at the time of the traumatic event. 

Imagine revisiting the experience you’re healing from and envision your younger self meeting your present adult self. Engage in a dialogue, embrace your child with a hug, and offer comfort.

There are healing meditations specifically designed for childhood trauma that can help you become the caring adult your inner child needs. Look out for resources like this YouTube guided practice or seek other trusted sources. 

Here are some additional healing childhood trauma techniques to consider:

  • Guided imagery and visualization. For example, you might visualize yourself in a safe, comforting environment where you can meet and interact with your inner child.
  • Reading about childhood trauma. Reading about your trauma is like having a heart-to-heart with your past self. It’s like saying, “Hey, my inner child, I see you. I see what happened, and it wasn’t right.” This acknowledgment can be incredibly healing.
  • Letter-writing. Write letters asking your inner child questions about their needs and desires to express your thoughts and emotions.
  • Art therapy. Drawing, painting, sculpting, dancing, and singing can all help you reconnect with your inner child through creativity and imagination.
  • Affirmations and self-compassion. Replacing negative self-talk with positive affirmations can help you develop a kinder, more compassionate relationship with your inner child.

Activities like these are a great first step in how to deal with childhood trauma. The next is to take care of your body and health.

Treat your body to a better diet

How much attention do you pay to what you eat or what’s on your plate? How about your water intake? 

We’re not suggesting that eating more healthily will heal childhood trauma, but it’s common knowledge that food impacts our body — and, most importantly, our psychological functioning. As a result, sticking to a healthy diet can set a good foundation for the deeper work of connecting with your inner child and overcoming past experiences.

A healthy diet isn’t all-or-nothing. Small changes matter more than dramatic ones. Aim for a balance of protein, fat, carbs, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. You don’t need to cut out foods. Just choose healthier options: it’s about gradual shifts, not perfection.

Get moving

Grappling with psychological challenges and unhealed childhood trauma often means you spend a lot of time in your head. Exercise is a great way to keep things balanced and boost adrenaline.

Like with your diet, you don’t need to make huge changes. What about 15 minutes of exercise daily? Or just take a stroll outside to take in your surroundings and let yourself be present in the moment.

Next, explore rhythmic exercises engaging your whole body: running, swimming, sport, or dancing.

Integrating mindfulness with exercise is key. Rather than allowing your thoughts to wander, immerse yourself entirely in the sensations in your body as you move. Feel the impact of your feet meeting the ground, your breath’s rhythm, and the air’s touch against your skin. 

Allow yourself to feel

Allowing yourself to feel is the cornerstone of dealing with childhood trauma. It’s perfectly okay if the process feels gradual — in fact, it often is. Recognize that healing isn’t a sprint but a journey filled with twists, turns, and gradual revelations.

Give yourself permission to experience whatever comes up when you revisit your memories. You might have moments of deep sorrow, anger, and confusion — or even experience unexpected moments of joy as you realize your strength and resilience. Understand that every emotion contributes to your healing from trauma; there are no forbidden feelings.

Here’s a helpful approach to working through emotions:

  1. Name what you feel. Identify and acknowledge the emotions you’re experiencing.
  2. Accept with gratitude. Embrace these emotions without judgment or suppression, recognizing their role in your healing. For example, it’s normal to feel angry if your trauma is related to a violation of your personal boundaries.
  3. Let it go. Release these emotions when you’re ready, allowing yourself to move forward with newfound understanding and strength.

Sometimes, you might know what you’re feeling but can’t cope with it alone. Reasonable questions: how do you get over childhood trauma in that case? This is where professional support can help.

Consider childhood trauma therapy

All the suggestions above show how to heal from childhood trauma without therapy. However, in some situations, it can be difficult to move forward without professional assistance. Therapy is usually the best route if you:

  • Feel overwhelming emotions when trying to process your trauma alone
  • Rely on alcohol or drugs for consolation
  • Struggle with work or maintaining home responsibilities
  • Suffer from severe anxiety, fear, or depression
  • Face difficulties forming close, lasting relationships
  • Encounter distressing memories, nightmares, or flashbacks
  • Feel emotionally numb and detached from others

It’s common to frame therapy as a sign of weakness or an inability to cope. In fact, starting therapy is an indicator that you’re moving toward your goal and learning how to recover from childhood trauma once and for all. Professional therapists are there to give you the support and guidance you need while you are getting over your childhood trauma. The process becomes less scary and painful when you’re not alone. 

Conclusion

Trauma is a fact of life. It does not, however, have to be a life sentence.” 

— Dr. Peter A. Levine, Psychologist and trauma expert

Left unprocessed, childhood trauma has the potential to spill over into our adult lives and negatively impact our relationships, behavior, and sense of well-being. But as Dr. Peter Levine suggests, we all have the ability to change.

This article looked at some common causes of trauma and the things you can do to begin your journey to healing from trauma. Taking the Breeze test is a great next step: check it out on the Breeze app today.

Po-Chang Hsu, MD, remarks about childhood trauma: Childhood traumas increase the risk of chronic diseases and behavioral issues in adulthood. Early identification and intervention are crucial in alleviating health consequences and aiding recovery. Cooperation of mental health professionals, primary care doctors, and specialists is often necessary for comprehensive treatment. Open communication about mental health and destigmatization are critical in treating childhood traumas. If you are suffering from thoughts of hurting yourself or others, seek medical attention immediately.

Dr. Po-Chang Hsu, MD, MS photo

Reviewed by Dr. Po-Chang Hsu, MD, MS

Dr. Hsu holds a Master’s of Science degree from both Harvard University and Tufts University. He did research in MRI neuroimaging...