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8 Signs Of Childhood Trauma In Adults

| Examples of Childhood Trauma | Signs of Childhood Trauma in Adults | Other Signs of Childhood Abuse | Long-Term Effects |

What Is Childhood Trauma

Childhood trauma refers to threatening experiences during childhood that exceed an individual’s coping abilities, resulting in maladaptive behavior. 

Trauma is not limited to a single disastrous event. It can be a long process that develops over time. It is a subjective experience because what one person perceives as a traumatic incident may not be perceived as such by another​1​.

A child who has suffered trauma has endured adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

trauma adults woman sits her head in her hands sitting on bed

Examples of Childhood Trauma

Here are the common examples of adverse experiences that can lead to childhood trauma​2​.

  • Child abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Emotional neglect
  • Physical neglect
  • Poverty
  • War
  • Unsafe neighborhood
  • Natural disasters such as fire, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc.r
  • Chronic stress
  • Parental drug abuse
  • Bullying, school violence
  • Death of a parent
  • Parents’ hostile marital discord
  • Life-threatening accidents such as car accidents, robberies, etc.

Signs of Childhood Trauma in Adults

Symptoms of childhood trauma in adults vary wildly depending on the type of trauma. But there are four common signs of trauma among adult survivors, regardless of whether the trauma was one-time, sudden, and expected, or long-term.

These four traits can persist for many years after a child experiences trauma. Although traumatized adults may exhibit only one or two of these traits and have other diagnoses, signs of other traits can still be found in their childhood trauma history​3​.

Repeatedly visualized memories or dreams

One of the most common symptoms of trauma victims is the ability to recall or re-experience traumatic events vividly. These recalls can be voluntary or involuntary.

A person experiencing involuntary flashbacks dissociates from reality and feels like the traumatic events are happening now​4​.

Recurrent, involuntary, and intrusive memories are most strongly stimulated by trauma cues, but they can also appear spontaneously.

Recurrent trauma-related dreams or sleep disturbance is also common.


Behavior reenactment is another sign often found in trauma victims. The reenacting can occur as single behaviors, repeated behaviors, or bodily responses​5​.

The individual is often unaware that their behaviors and responses repeat some of their original thoughts or responses in the childhood traumatic experience.

Reenactment can happen so often that it becomes a defining trait of a person’s personality, which may develop into a personality disorder in adulthood​6​.

Fear development

Survivors of childhood trauma may experience intense fears or prolonged mental distress when exposed to cues that symbolize or resemble aspects of their trauma.

As a result, they develop phobias and avoid triggers that may evoke traumatic memories, thoughts, or difficult feelings related to the trauma.

Cues may come in the form of an environment, a person, a conversation, an activity, a situation, or an object​7​.

A person may also be afraid of mundane situations or objects, such as the dark, strangers, being alone, or being in a small, confined space.

Changed beliefs or attitudes about people, life, or the future

Trauma victims may have a negative outlook on the future. To them, it may seem inevitable that more trauma will follow. They may have thoughts such as, “I never know what will happen in my lifetime.”

The individuals also develop a lack of trust or a feeling of safety. For example, “You can’t trust anyone” or “You cannot count on anyone or anything to protect you” are typical beliefs.

Due to these attitudes or beliefs, some individuals develop hypervigilance, while others may develop self-destructive or reckless behaviors.

Other Signs of Childhood Abuse

In addition to the four common childhood trauma symptoms, there are specific signs that are more likely found in victims of child abuse.

Repeated trauma tends to be caused by childhood abuse.

As a child experiences more traumatic events, they begin to anticipate them and develop coping mechanisms to protect themselves.

However, some coping mechanisms can negatively affect their mental health later in life once they leave the traumatic environment. Coping strategies that were once helpful now become maladaptive symptoms.

Avoidance and numbing

Denial and numbing can protect one from feeling the pain of abuse. Victims of chronic abuse often avoid discussing their ordeals or themselves. Additionally, they strive to appear normal on a daily basis​8​.


Chronic abuse can lead to depersonalization and dissociation. Using this coping mechanism, a child can escape mentally through self-hypnosis​9​.

Extreme Passivity and Rage

Lack of emotional regulation is found in adults with childhood abuse. The victim may swing between extreme passivity and rage​8​.


The feeling of sadness is also common among childhood trauma survivors​10​.

Long-term Effects of Childhood Trauma on Adults

A long list of mental health conditions is associated with childhood abuse trauma.

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Conduct disorder
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorder
  • Dissociative disorder
  • Multiple personality disorder
  • Antisocial disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Narcissistic personality disorder

In addition to mental health issues, toxic stress from prolonged abuse can also have adverse health effects.

Adults with childhood trauma are at increased risk of a wide range of conditions including:

  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • Stroke
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Emphysema
  • Diabetes
  • Skeletal fractures
  • Hepatitis

Final Thoughts

The effects of trauma are profound and complex. It is vital to seek help from mental health professionals if you suffer from symptoms of trauma. 

Therapy for childhood trauma isn’t necessarily expensive. In the United States, most healthcare insurance is required by law to carry coverage for mental health. Free therapies can also be found in many local communities and on government websites.

Also See: Things Narcissistic Mothers Say


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    Terr LC. Childhood Traumas: An Outline and Overview. FOC. Published online July 2003:322-334. doi:10.1176/foc.1.3.322
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    Perrin S, Smith P, Yule W. Practitioner Review: The Assessment and Treatment of Post‐traumatic Stress Disorder in Children and Adolescents. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Published online March 2000:277-289. doi:10.1111/1469-7610.00612
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    Davies JM, Frawley MG. Dissociative processes and transference‐countertransference paradigms in the psychoanalytically oriented treatment of adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Psychoanalytic Dialogues. Published online January 1992:5-36. doi:10.1080/10481889209538920
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    Trippany RL, Helm HM, Simpson L. Trauma Reenactment: Rethinking Borderline Personality Disorder When Diagnosing Sexual Abuse Survivors. Journal of Mental Health Counseling. Published online March 30, 2006:95-110. doi:10.17744/mehc.28.2.ef384lm8ykfujum5
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    Davis TE III, Ollendick TH, Öst LG. Intensive Treatment of Specific Phobias in Children and Adolescents. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice. Published online August 2009:294-303. doi:10.1016/j.cbpra.2008.12.008
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    Etherington K. Supervising counsellors who work with survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Counselling Psychology Quarterly. Published online December 2000:377-389. doi:10.1080/713658497
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    Watson S, Chilton R, Fairchild H, Whewell P. Association between Childhood Trauma and Dissociation Among Patients with Borderline Personality Disorder. Aust N Z J Psychiatry. Published online May 2006:478-481. doi:10.1080/j.1440-1614.2006.01825.x
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    Kendall-Tackett K. The health effects of childhood abuse: four pathways by which abuse can influence health. Child Abuse & Neglect. Published online June 2002:715-729. doi:10.1016/s0145-2134(02)00343-5

About Pamela Li

Pamela Li is an author, Founder, and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University). Learn more


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