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Childhood trauma

How to Treat Childhood Trauma in Adults

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15 min

How to Treat Childhood Trauma in Adults

“Let’s talk about your childhood,” this is often one of the first statements many people expect to hear from a psychologist. And they are partially true! Even though childhood isn’t the one and only reason for all problems, many traumas are hidden there. 

No one’s life is perfect. But let’s consider why you’re afraid to sleep in the darkness or always feel lonely. Why is it so difficult for you to build relationships with others? Do you feel as if you have poor boundaries? Do you think it’s just your personality? It could be that there’s some unresolved childhood trauma.

Let’s look at how childhood trauma affects adulthood, learn to calm what can feel like a rollercoaster of emotions, and tell painful experiences apart from other memories. Keep reading to learn how to heal from childhood trauma and why it will make your life much happier.

Why is Healing from Childhood Trauma so Important?

Just think about it: 26% of children in the US witness or experience a traumatic event before they turn four. At the same time, nearly 50% of American children are exposed to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that can severely harm their well-being.

So, what is childhood trauma? It’s a person’s response to a dangerous, scary, or traumatizing event that a person experiences at the age of 0-18. Usually, in such situations, children feel helpless, overwhelmed, and afraid. This can be even more distressing without the support of a trusted adult. 

Most of us have experienced something like that. Quite often, when not addressed, such events affect our behavior and follow us throughout our lives. 

Imagine that you have a specific behavioral pattern that disrupts your life. For instance, whenever you leave home, you forget to turn the light off. Or, every 30 minutes at work, you start scrolling TikTok instead of doing an urgent task. Can you fix it? Definitely! The first step is looking at what might be contributing to the behavior. 

Childhood trauma in adults is usually more complicated and has a more significant influence on our lives. Difficulties with communication, social anxiety, and self-esteem issues are only a few effects of traumatizing events. And they can influence most of your everyday actions.

At the same time, generational trauma occurs when a whole generation endures a traumatizing experience. It can be war, economic crisis, hunger, or discrimination. For example, some research shows that slavery in the United States created generational trauma in African American families.

So, what are the signs that you are dealing with childhood trauma in adulthood? 

  • Repetitive behavior patterns that you can’t seem to change. It can feel like you’re stuck in a vicious cycle. 
  • Some situations trigger you and make you feel uncomfortable, but you’re unsure why. It could be a sign that you have unresolved childhood trauma.
  • You have flashbacks and nightmares or don’t remember a particular time from your life. 
  • You struggle to develop healthy relationships. 
  • You have uncontrollable anger. 
  • It’s difficult for you to communicate your emotions, or you often withdraw from others. 
  • You experience depression, anxiety, or substance use issues. 

Symptoms of Childhood Trauma in Adulthood

Traumas may go unnoticed for a long time. Until one day, you wake up and realize something has gone wrong. Your whole life is like a house of cards that you build repeatedly. And it collapses every night when you leave alone.

I get you. Understanding human emotions can be difficult. Dealing with childhood trauma often seems even tougher. 

Keep reading to learn more about some of the signs and symptoms that you might be coping with childhood trauma and its effects as an adult. 

Physical issues

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states, childhood traumas may lead to various mental health problems. 

  • Weakened immune system
  • Sleep problems
  • Higher risks of chronic diseases
  • Poor well-being without a particular reason

These are only a few of the possible effects that can show up after going through adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

Note that physical issues result from many things.

Geralyn Dexter, PH.D., LMHC, states “It’s important to talk to your provider to figure out if you have an underlying medical condition that might be the cause. If you can rule out a medical condition, considering the symptoms of childhood trauma in adulthood could be essential to help you get answers.”

Mental health disorders

Trauma from childhood can cause PTSD in adults, as well as depression and anxiety. These diagnoses may result in issues from dissociation, mood changes, isolation, and addiction withdrawal.

Disclaimer. Not all ACEs turn into psychological disorders. Some people overcome childhood trauma more effectively and may only experience minor changes in emotional or behavioral patterns. Everything — from environmental factors to your resilience — plays a role.

Relationship problems

Complex childhood trauma in adults can lead to unhealthy attachments and poor relationship boundaries. In some cases, it can also lead to violent tendencies, resulting in emotional abuse and financial abuse. On the other hand, some people experience feelings of isolation, neglect, or abandonment, which can impact their sense of self-worth, making it difficult to connect with others and have meaningful relationships.

Experiencing trauma can make building healthy relationships more challenging. If your parents or loved ones were abusive, emotionally unavailable, neglectful, or overwhelmed, it’s possible that witnessing or experiencing those behavior patterns may have influenced you.

Is your relationship toxic? I recommend you take a look at your childhood and think about how to heal past trauma.

Cognitive dysfunction

Childhood trauma can affect the brain and cause changes in regions associated with memory and the regulation of fear. This may result in PTSD and difficulties with learning, planning, and problem-solving.

Moreover, ADHD & trauma are also connected. So, if you are impulsive, inattentive, and have problems with academic or work performance, ACEs could be worth considering. Overcoming childhood trauma in adulthood may seem complicated, but you can take steps to heal and feel more in control of your life.

Unhealthy habits

Chronic childhood stress often leads to unhealthy habits in the future. People who experienced traumatic events in the past may engage in behaviors such as smoking, drinking heavily, or using other substances to cope with their lives.

Have you ever said something like, “I will never be like you?” Or “I’m afraid to grow up and behave like my parents.” The saddest part is that many children will grow up and repeat the patterns of behaviors, including unhealthy relationships, violence, or addiction. However, healing childhood trauma in adulthood can improve your well-being and relationships and help you engage in healthier behaviors. 

Why Overcoming Childhood Trauma Is a Common Need

Fast stats. Over two-thirds of children overcome at least 1 traumatic event by age 16.

Again, not everyone experiences the effects of trauma for the rest of their life. However, lots of people do.

How to understand your experience better and identify when and what has dramatically changed you? In this section, I’ll highlight some factors that can lead to trauma. I hope you will come to recognize that you are not alone, but more importantly, that the trauma you experience is not your fault.

Family issues

Childhood trauma may be the result of dynamics or problems you experienced in your family as you were growing up. 

Maybe you had a dysfunctional family or enmeshment trauma and now need to find healthy coping mechanisms and establish boundaries to protect your mental health. Or perhaps you had a loving family with many siblings but felt isolated because your parents were unable to meet your emotional needs. 

There can be lots of ACEs that may cause symptoms of childhood trauma in adults. Let me briefly highlight a few more of them:

  • Parents’ divorce
  • Death of a parent
  • Life-threatening diseases
  • Emotionally distant relatives 
  • A parent who lives with mental health conditions
  • The need to play the role of a ‘mum’ or ‘dad’ in a family (parentification)

For example, remember Todd Phillips’ Joker? He is an excellent illustration of how childhood trauma leads to mental health conditions. The roots of the character’s problems come from the complicated relationship with his mother, who hid her past. Childhood trauma and repetitive abuse turn introvert Arthur Fleck into a villain. 

Social and environmental factors

Social and environmental factors are often the cause of many traumatic experiences, especially during childhood and adolescence. Here are just a few examples:

  • Bullying
  • Racism
  • Discrimination
  • Poverty and inability to cover basic needs
  • Lack of education
  • Community violence 
  • Family dysfunction

Global issues 

Childhood trauma therapy may be necessary for people who experienced ACEs because of their race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Fatphobia has also been prevalent for a long time and could result in body dysmorphia.

Global issues resulting from natural disasters, geopolitical conflict, and more can lead to traumatic situations that have a far-reaching impact on citizens. For children, their influence is critical. Examples of global issues that can lead to childhood trauma are: 

  • Wars
  • Migration and refugee status
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Natural disasters
  • Famine

Movie example. Take a look at “Beasts of No Nation” from Netflix. It’s a movie about Agu, a boy who became a child soldier in a civil war. While watching the film, you’ll see Agu experiencing the horrors of war and notice how his whole personality changes.

A boy who feels lost and deals with unresolved childhood trauma

Effects of Childhood Trauma in Adulthood (with Examples)

Can you imagine that 1 in 3 diagnosed mental health conditions in adulthood relate to adverse childhood experiences and traumas? Sometimes, a person may experience ACEs and not develop a mental health diagnosis. 

Nevertheless, mental disorders aren’t the only thing that can harm your life. Childhood trauma responses in adults can constantly follow you or appear during stressful times or under the influence of specific triggers. Below, we’ll look at some effects of childhood trauma and how they might show up in adulthood. 

Low self-esteem

Here is an example: James has always been called “weird” by his peers. Whether the reason was big round glasses, his protruding ears, or his introverted nature, other children bullied him at school and teased him about his appearance. 

Now, James is grown up. He loves his job and feels he’s living the life of his dreams. But, sometimes, when things go wrong, James feels worthless, inadequate, and ashamed. These thoughts and feelings may stem from the hurtful narrative he heard as a child. So, James still looks for ways how to heal childhood trauma.

Emotional regulation issues

Another example is Emily, a beautiful woman with a husband and two children. Even though their family seems ideal, there are some “skeletons in the closet.” Emily is a cold, distant mother. She can’t give her children the support they need as she experiences continuous anxiety and fear. These might be the effects of childhood trauma in adulthood.

Little Emily used to live without a dad. While her mum always worked to provide the family with the necessities, they always lacked money. Now, even with a good job, Emily is afraid to repeat her mother’s fate.

Social anxiety

Sarah has always been shy. Growing up, children constantly teased her and labeled her aloof or stuck-up. Despite her best efforts, Sarah struggled to make friends and felt like an outsider. 

At 25, Sarah works as a support manager in an office. Still, her social anxiety haunts her. Sarah struggles with speaking up and sharing her thoughts and ideas with her team. She is quiet and constantly worries about saying the wrong thing to her colleagues. Sarah finds herself feeling isolated and disconnected, much like she did as a child. She doesn’t want to quit her job and searches for ways how to get rid of trauma.

Fear of loss 

Ben lost his dad when he was 10. It left a void in his life that he struggled to fill. Even though he always received support and love from his mum, Ben felt lonely and overwhelmed. He never truly processed the loss of his father or its impact on him. 

Now, as a young man, Ben fears losing his mother. He can’t bear the thought that the only person who has always been there for him can pass away. Ben hesitates to form deep connections with others, fearing the pain of losing them. For a month, he’s getting therapy for his childhood trauma with a psychologist.

Approaches to Heal Childhood Trauma Treatment for Adults 

“Your pain didn’t start with you, but it can end with you,” ― Stephanie M. Hutchins, PhD, author of books about childhood trauma.

Geralyn Dexter also comments “There are several evidence-based approaches mental health professionals use to help people address trauma. You might be unsure how each of the interventions works or which one might be helpful for you. So, let’s break it down in this section.”

  • Eye movement desensitization & reprocessing therapy (EMDR) encourages patients to move their eyes in a specific way while focusing on a traumatic memory. During EMDR, you process a distressing event while also focusing on external stimuli. This allows our brain to reprocess and reshape traumatic events and reduce distress associated with the memory.
  • Cognitive processing therapy (CPT) is suitable mainly for dealing with PTSD. It helps patients learn to manage upsetting thoughts related to trauma. Then, with CPT, people start changing them, enhancing the perception of the experience. 
  • Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) aims to reduce symptoms of trauma by helping patients process their experiences. The approach involves sessions with individuals and their caregivers to help people regain control over their lives.
  • Narrative exposure therapy (NET) is a form of childhood trauma therapy for adults that is best for treating patients with complex trauma. NET involves processing memories in a structured manner within the therapeutic context. It allows the person to integrate past experiences into their present understanding of self and the world.

Here, you can find the best books on childhood trauma to gain insight from expert psychologists and discover how different people learn to deal with past trauma.

5 Simple Steps on How to Get Over Trauma with a Therapist

“Trauma comes back as a reaction, not a memory.” — Bessel Van Der Kolk, Dutch psychiatrist and author.

  • How to get over childhood trauma? 
  • How to start living without the shadow of the past standing behind me?
  • How to learn to be happy even after all the things that happened? 

These are only a few questions that may keep you awake at night. Luckily, you’re not alone.

Psychologists have outlined dozens of tips for healing childhood trauma in adults. Let me provide the simplest and the most effective steps below.

1. Find a professional that fits your needs

Look for someone who is licensed, trained, and has experience treating clients with trauma. It’s okay to ask questions about a therapist’s background and experience. You’re going to be sharing some vulnerable moments. It’s important to make sure a therapist is a good fit.

2. Get familiar with your trauma

How to get past childhood trauma? Acknowledge that the traumatic event happened. Though you can’t change it, you can heal from it. One of the worst things you can do is pretend or convince yourself that nothing serious happened. It did.

The most important step to treat childhood trauma is to appreciate the event and the fact that you’re not guilty of it. As a way to protect ourselves, sometimes our brains will repress painful memories. But if you remember the experience, don’t try to minimize or rationalize the trauma. This will free you from constant overthinking and allow you to move towards a healthier, more fulfilling life.

3. Accept the past experience and reclaim control

How to get over trauma smoothly? Everyone’s healing process looks different, and your journey may not be easy. That’s okay. Though you may have felt helpless then, know that you aren’t now. Reminding yourself that the trauma is in the past and that you can be in control now may help you feel empowered. 

Remember that healing from trauma can be a long journey full of ups and downs. Some days might seem easier than others, but sometimes, it might feel like you’re climbing Everest. Try to notice and praise the smallest achievements in your healing process and reclaim control over your life step by step.

4. Acknowledge your emotions

Be honest with yourself, as it’s the only way how to overcome trauma. Name what you’re feeling in the bright and the dark moments. Learn to accept and experience your emotions without judgment, whether these are fear, loneliness, anger, sadness, etc. By acknowledging your emotions, you gain insight and can begin to create distance so that you can observe them without getting swept up in them. 

5. Develop new coping skills

The coping skills you’ve been using may not be working. Childhood trauma treatment for adults usually involves developing and practicing new coping skills that allow you to approach triggering situations differently.

How to deal with childhood trauma? You can learn to manage your emotions and reduce feeling hypervigilant or paralyzed every time you are in a crowded room. Therapy is a great place to learn tools and skills you can use to manage the effects of trauma in your everyday life. 

Every case is different, so a professional therapist will help you find a way out of your behavioral patterns. Try to trust the process and remember that the past doesn’t identify your present.

Let’s Recap

By reading this, you’ve already taken the first step toward healing your trauma. Now that you have a basic understanding of what childhood trauma is, how it shows up, ways it can be treated, and steps you can take, it’s time for you to start your healing journey. 

Start a journey to your happy life, free from past experiences. Take a test from Breeze and get personalized recommendations on how to begin healing your childhood trauma. I hope this information makes you feel empowered. Contact a therapist, talk with your loved ones, and get the necessary support to change your future. You can begin today.

Geralyn Dexter, Ph.D., LMHC photo

Reviewed by Geralyn Dexter, Ph.D., LMHC

Geralyn Dexter, Ph.D., LMHC (she/her), is a licensed mental health counselor, writer, researcher, and psychology faculty member at...