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Childhood Trauma in Adults: Symptoms & How To Heal

What is Childhood Trauma

Childhood trauma is an emotional response caused by deeply distressing events, such as child abuse, bullying, and the death of a parent during the formative years, from infancy through adolescence. These traumatic events are adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that can have particularly severe effects because developing brains are inherently more vulnerable. The repercussions of such developmental trauma can influence children’s development, leading to lasting impacts that persist into adulthood.

The impact of psychological trauma is cumulative; the greater the number of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) encountered or the longer the exposure to trauma, the more negative health outcomes in adult life.

The perception of distress is subjective; what one child finds distressing may not affect another in the same manner.

That means what is traumatic for one child may not be for another, and what is traumatic for a child might not be traumatic for an adult.​1​

As with trauma in adults, childhood trauma can lead to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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

Types of Childhood Trauma

There are two main types of trauma.​

Type I trauma involves one sudden, external event that leaves the child momentarily helpless, overwhelming their usual coping mechanisms and defenses. Examples of type I trauma are car accidents and robberies.

Type II trauma involves prolonged, recurring experiences that leave the child with permanent feelings of helplessness. Examples of type II trauma are child abuse and witnessing domestic violence.

Attachment trauma and betrayal trauma

Childhood traumas involving child abuse tend to be repetitive and last for an extended period.​2​

When caregivers cause the abuse, children feel a sense of betrayal, disrupting the development of a secure attachment.

Hence, childhood trauma caused by maltreatment is also called attachment trauma or betrayal trauma.

Such trauma often leads to symptoms more severe and multifaceted than those seen in PTSD.

As a result, this type of trauma is referred to as complex trauma, and the resulting disorder complex PTSD (CPTSD).

scared woman covering her mouth with hand

Examples of childhood trauma

Childhood trauma can be caused by adverse hardship or significant early life stress. Here are some common causes of developmental trauma.​3​

Overt trauma experiences include the following.

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Verbal abuse
  • War
  • Unsafe neighborhood
  • Orphanage
  • Homelessness
  • Institutional abuse​4​​, such as in the Catholic Church​5​​​ and university sports​​6​
  • Parents with substance use disorders or mental disorders
  • Witnessing domestic violence
  • Bullying or school violence
  • Death of a parent
  • Forced separation from parents
  • Parents’ hostile marital discord
  • Toxic parents
  • Natural disasters such as fire, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc.
  • Life-threatening accidents such as car accidents, robberies, kidnapping, etc.

Some trauma is less obvious but can still cause severe psychological harm in childhood.

Covert childhood trauma include the following.

  • Emotional neglect
  • Medical neglect
  • Poverty
  • Aggressively yelling at kids
  • Parentification
  • Enmeshment
  • Malicious parental alienation
Sad guy sitting in dark room

Symptoms of Childhood Trauma in Adulthood

Here are the common signs of childhood trauma in adults.

Re-experiencing symptoms

One of the most common childhood trauma symptoms is re-experiencing traumatic events vividly. These recalls can be voluntary or involuntary.

Re-experiencing symptoms include the following.​7​

  • Recurrent, involuntary, and intrusive memories appear spontaneously or are stimulated by trauma triggers.
  • Flashbacks, dissociation from reality, and feeling like traumatic events are happening now.​8​
  • Recurrent trauma-related nightdreams
  • Psychological distress triggered by traumatic cues
  • Physical reactivity triggered by traumatic cues
  • Reenacting in single behaviors, repeated behaviors, or bodily responses.​9​

Avoidant or numbing symptoms

Survivors of childhood trauma may experience intense fears or prolonged mental distress when exposed to cues that symbolize or resemble aspects of their trauma. They develop phobias and avoid triggers that may evoke traumatic memories, thoughts, or feelings related to the trauma.

Avoidant symptoms include the following.​10​

  • Avoid environments, activities, people, conversations, or objects associated with the trauma, even though they are mundane situations, such as darkness, strangers, alone, or a small, confined space.
  • Avoid discussing their ordeals or themselves.
  • Memory loss about the event

Hyperarousal symptoms

Childhood trauma can change brain structure and functionality, particularly in the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. Individuals can be constantly on high alert, anticipating the next potential disaster. Their nervous system remains consistently heightened.

Hyperarousal symptoms include the following.​11​

  • Anxiety
  • Hypervigilance with fear of recurrence
  • Heightened stress response
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Cannot focus on schoolwork

Changed beliefs or attitudes

Trauma victims may have a negative outlook on the future. To them, it may seem inevitable that more trauma will follow.

Changed beliefs include the folloowing.​12​

  • Distorted beliefs include, “I never know what will happen in my lifetime.”
  • A lack of trust or a feeling of safety, such as, “You can’t trust anyone” or “You cannot count on anyone or anything to protect you.”
  • Self-blaming thoughts

Self-destructive behavior

Self-destructive and risky behavior include the following.​13​

  • Defying authorities
  • Driving dangerously
  • Lawbreaking
  • Hitchhiking
  • Unprotected sex
  • Carrying a weapon

Insecure attachment

Attachment trauma can lead to the development of insecure attachment styles, including avoidant attachment, anxious attachment, and fearful-avoidant attachment.

These styles of attachment are associated with the following issues.​14​

  • Emotional dysregulation – swing between extreme passivity and rage.
  • Relationship difficulties – problems forming and maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships.
  • Reactive attachment disorder or developmental trauma disorder.

Mental disorders

Unresolved childhood trauma can lead to mental illnesses, such as the following.​15​

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Conduct disorder
  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorder
  • Social phobia
  • Drug abuse
  • Alcoholism
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Multiple personality disorder
  • Narcissistic personality disorder

Physical symptoms

Prolonged childhood stress, also known as toxic stress, can impair the immune system, making children more susceptible to infections, allergies, and other immune-related health problems. When they grow up, they are also more susceptible to physical illnesses and somatic symptoms.

Adults with abuse trauma history are at risk of a wide range of conditions, including the following.​16​

  • Autoimmune disease
  • Heart disease
  • Chronic pain
  • Digestive issues
  • Cancer
  • Stroke
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Emphysema
  • Diabetes
  • Skeletal fractures
  • Hepatitis
  • Panic attacks
fist punching into glass and breaks it

How To Heal From Your Childhood Trauma

Acknowledge Child Trauma

To heal from child trauma, the first step is to face painful experiences and stop living in denial.

It’s a big part of the healing process.

Recognize the effects of these traumatic memories on your life, as ignoring or suppressing them can perpetuate emotional and psychological distress.

By accepting and acknowledging the trauma, you can begin to process the associated emotions and memories, ultimately allowing them to work through the pain and start on the path toward healing and growth. 

It’s not your fault

While it is essential to accept and confront past experiences, do not blame yourself for what happened.​17​

Childhood trauma is never the child’s fault.

Children are vulnerable and dependent on the adults in their lives for protection, care, and guidance.

They are not responsible for the actions or inactions of others that led to their suffering.

That being said, it is also crucial to recognize you have control over your future and the choices you make moving forward. 

Empower yourself by taking charge of your healing journey. Do not let your past dictate your present or future life. 

Build a positive relationship

Attachment trauma is one of the most prevalent types of childhood trauma.

It is often caused by one’s parent or primary caregiver, and therefore, attachment trauma is relational trauma.

Relationships can heal relational trauma.​18​

Unfortunately, attachment trauma is not a socially acceptable topic.

Saying anything negative about one’s parents is taboo. 

You may be labeled as ungrateful, unappreciative, or a terrible child despite enduring significant pain under your parents’ “care.”

So, the best way to build a positive relationship that can help you heal is by seeking help from an experienced mental health professional.

Unlike friends or acquaintances who may inadvertently say hurtful things despite their desire to help, mental health professionals are dedicated to helping you and have the expertise to do so effectively.

If cost is a concern, look for free therapy or other low-cost options.

Working with a therapist who is a good fit for you is vital. 

Not every therapist will be the perfect fit for every survivor, as individuals have unique needs and preferences regarding treatment options, personality, and communication style.

Finding the right one for you may take time and involve several trials. 

Do not be discouraged if you haven’t found one you feel comfortable opening up to yet. It is normal to try out multiple therapists before finding the one that best aligns with your needs and goals.

Don’t isolate yourself

Emotional trauma survivors tend to avoid others and withdraw from social activities. But connecting with people plays a crucial role in recovery.

Positive experiences can help rewire the circuits in your brain.

Build a support system by maintaining relationships and reaching out to connect with those you trust.

Engaging in social interactions is good for your emotional health, even if they can’t help you process your emotional pain, which is better done with your therapist.

Joining a support group for victims of childhood trauma is another option.

Identify and stop reenacting

Victims of unhealed childhood trauma often find themselves repeating destructive patterns over and over again.

For instance, adults raised in abusive surroundings might replicate domestic violence in their own lives, either as victims or perpetrators.​19​

With the help of your therapist, break the cycle and establish a healthier lifestyle.

Stop maladaptive coping behavior

Traumatized adults may develop maladaptive coping mechanisms such as drug abuse or alcohol addiction.

Seek help to stop using them and develop healthy coping strategies to deal with stress instead. It is hard, but you don’t have to do this alone.

  • If you are in an abusive relationship, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or text START to 88788.
  • If you are facing substance use disorders, call the SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) for treatment referrals.
  • If you feel suicidal or have self-injurious behaviors, call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or text 988 to speak with someone today.


Growing up with trauma often leads to having a negative view of yourself.

Change that by embracing self-care and self-compassion.

Self-care is not about visiting a spa or getting a massage.

It involves discovering and engaging in activities that nurture your physical and emotional well-being in your daily life.

For some people, it might be eating healthy, exercising, meditating, or getting enough sleep.

For others, it could be reading comic books, organizing their room, or chatting with someone supportive and empathetic.

True self-care is identifying and prioritizing activities that calm your nervous system, help you build a positive self-image, and foster self-acceptance.

back side of an old couple hugging

Final Thoughts

Things like self-care or no isolation might seem unattainable, unrealistic, or simplistic if you grapple with depression, low self-worth, or a lack of trust in others.

It’s not like simply following these steps, and everything will be alright.

If only it were that easy.

You might not be able to do all or any of it, but you can start somewhere.

Pick something and work toward them one day at a time.

Starting a change can be scary and daunting. Tackling the impact of childhood trauma is an immense challenge. You didn’t cause this harm to yourself, and it’s unjust that you have to face it all by yourself.

I strongly recommend seeking a skilled and compassionate therapist to support you throughout this journey.

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.

Remember, you are not alone, and you are worth it.

A woman sits with her knees up and her hands over her face.


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Updated on September 29th, 2023 by 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


    * All information on is for educational purposes only. Parenting For Brain does not provide medical advice. If you suspect medical problems or need professional advice, please consult a physician. *

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