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8 Signs Of Childhood Trauma In Adults

What Is Childhood Trauma

Childhood trauma refers to threatening experiences during childhood that exceed a child’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​.

Trauma is often caused by adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

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

Examples of Childhood Trauma

Here are some common examples of traumatic experiences that can trigger childhood trauma​2​.

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Emotional neglect
  • Medical neglect
  • Poverty
  • War
  • Unsafe neighborhood
  • Fire, hurricanes, earthquakes, or other natural disasters
  • Verbal abuse
  • Chronic stress
  • Homelessness
  • Parents with substance use disorders or mental disorders
  • Witnessing domestic violence
  • Bullying or school violence
  • Death of a parent
  • Parents’ hostile marital discord
  • Life-threatening accidents such as car accidents, robberies, kidnapping, etc.
Sad guy sitting in dark room

Signs of Childhood Trauma in Adults

Symptoms of childhood trauma in adulthood vary wildly depending on the type of trauma. But there are four common signs of trauma in adults who have developed posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), regardless of whether the trauma was one-time or recurring.

These four traits can persist for many years after a person 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​.

1. Visual re-experience

One of the most common childhood trauma symptoms is re-experiencing 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 triggers or cues, but they can also appear spontaneously.

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

2. Reenactment

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

The individual is often unaware that their behaviors repeat some of their original thoughts or childhood trauma responses.

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​.

3. 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.

They develop phobias and avoid triggers that may evoke traumatic memories, thoughts, or feelings related to the trauma.

Triggers 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.

4. 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 may 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 develop hypervigilance, while others develop self-destructive or reckless behaviors.

Also See: How Does Trauma Affect The Brain In Children

scared woman covering her mouth with hand

Signs of Childhood Abuse

Some early childhood trauma involves child abuse.

Childhood abuse tends to be repetitive and last for a period of time. This type of developmental trauma often leads to more intricate and multifaceted symptoms than those seen in PTSD. They are referred to as Complex-PTSD (CPTSD).

As a child experiences more traumatic events, they begin to anticipate them and develop coping mechanisms to protect themselves. Some coping mechanisms can negatively affect their mental health later in life after they leave the traumatic environment.

Coping strategies that were once helpful in childhood now become maladaptive in adult life.

Here are some common CPTSD symptoms.

5. Dissociation

Chronic abuse can lead to depersonalization and dissociation. Using this coping mechanism, a child can escape mentally through self-hypnosis​8​.

6. 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​9​.

7. Extreme Passivity and Rage

Lack of emotional regulation is found in adults with childhood abuse. The victim may swing between extreme passivity and rage​9​.

8. Sadness

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

Also See:

fist punching into glass and breaks it

Effects of Childhood Trauma on Adults

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

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Conduct disorder
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • 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 abuse trauma in childhood are at increased risk of a wide range of conditions, including:

  • Chronic pain​11​
  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • Stroke
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Emphysema
  • Diabetes
  • Skeletal fractures
  • Hepatitis
  • Panic attacks
back side of an old couple hugging

Also See:
How To Help Children Heal
How To Heal From Childhood Trauma
Best Book For Childhood Trauma Survivors

Final Thoughts

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

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 government websites.

Also See: Things Narcissistic Mothers Say


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    Sar V, Ozturk E. What Is Trauma and Dissociation? Journal of Trauma Practice. Published online September 13, 2006:7-20. doi:10.1300/j189v04n01_02
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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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    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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    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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    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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    Edwards RR, Dworkin RH, Sullivan MD, Turk DC, Wasan AD. The Role of Psychosocial Processes in the Development and Maintenance of Chronic Pain. The Journal of Pain. Published online September 2016:T70-T92. doi:10.1016/j.jpain.2016.01.001

Updated on May 17th, 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. *