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What Is Childhood Trauma?

Childhood trauma is an emotional response caused by life-threatening or intensely stressful situations that are too overwhelming for a child’s psychological and neurological capacity to manage. Childhood trauma is a type of psychological trauma experienced by children under 18. Such trauma can come from preventable sources, such as adverse parenting practices, and unpreventable sources, such as natural disasters that are beyond human control.

Seven kinds of preventable adverse experiences, including abuse and neglect, can disrupt a child’s development and leave deep emotional scars.

Trauma during a child’s formative years is especially damaging because the brain undergoes rapid development and is more vulnerable during this time. Long-term emotional damage can occur to traumatized children who don’t receive sufficient support.

However, research shows that reducing risk factors and increasing protective factors can significantly enhance a child’s resilience and ability to resist trauma-related disorders following adverse experiences.

With the right help, childhood trauma survivors can heal and move forward. 

Moreover, there are resources available to help prevent trauma from occurring in the first place.

boy sitting crying child trauma

What is childhood trauma?

Childhood trauma is a psychological response that a child under 18 experiences as a result of exposure to overwhelmingly stressful events.

These events can be one-time occurrences, such as natural disasters, accidents, or violent attacks, or they can be recurring situations, such as abusive homes, bullying, or unsafe neighborhoods.

Traumatic events can pose a physical threat to life, like in situations of war or life-threatening illness, or they can cause psychological damage, as in cases of emotional abuse or severe neglect.

How does trauma in childhood differ from trauma experienced in adulthood?

Trauma in childhood differs from trauma experienced in adulthood in 6 ways.

  • Developmental Impact: Childhood trauma occurs during developmental stages, potentially disrupting normal emotional, cognitive, and physical development. In contrast, adults have typically reached full development, so trauma impacts already established systems.
  • Dependency and Power Dynamics: Children depend more on adults for care and protection. Trauma in childhood often involves a breach of trust in these fundamental relationships, whereas adults are more likely to have the freedom and resources to seek help or remove themselves from harmful situations.
  • Coping Mechanisms: Children have limited coping skills and understanding to process traumatic events. Adults generally have more developed coping mechanisms and better understand the event and its implications.
  • Expression of Trauma: Children may not have the language or emotional maturity to express their trauma, often displaying it through changes in behavior, play, or academic performance. Adults are more likely to articulate their experiences and emotional distress.
  • Long-Term Effects: Trauma in childhood can have a deeper impact on a person’s life, influencing their mental health, relationships, and worldview into adulthood. While adult trauma can also have long-term effects, adults may have more established support systems and a clearer sense of identity to aid recovery.
  • Resilience and Recovery: Children’s resilience can be more malleable, and with appropriate support, they can often recover and develop healthy coping strategies. However, unresolved trauma can lead to more complex issues in adulthood. Adults might have more established resilience but also ingrained response patterns that can complicate recovery.

What are the sources of childhood trauma?

The sources of child trauma can come from within or outside the family unit. 

A significant source of trauma arises from the family environment, particularly from parents or caregivers. When parents are aggressive, controlling, or mentally ill, the parent-child interactions create adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). The home environment becomes permanently stressful and unsettling for the child, impacting their emotional and psychological growth.

Additionally, high-conflict marriages or relationships between parents can be a source of trauma for children. Witnessing or being exposed to ongoing fighting, arguments, or even violence between parents can be deeply traumatic for a child.

Beyond the family, sources of child trauma include peers and authority figures. School violence and bullying by peers involve repeated aggression or threats made to a child. Institutional abuse by authority figures can happen in schools, religious institutions, or childcare facilities.​1​

Childhood exposure to community violence, such as shootings or gang-related activities, can also lead to heightened levels of anxiety and fear in children.

What are adverse childhood experiences?

Adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, are preventable traumatic events that occur during childhood, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

ACEs include experiences such as child abuse, neglect, and witnessing domestic violence. Such trauma is preventable because the experiences often occur in environments controlled by parents or caregivers.​2​

Are adverse childhood experiences the same as child trauma?

Although childhood trauma encompasses all types of traumatic events, preventable and unpreventable, the term is sometimes used synonymously with ACEs in discussions about trauma that parents could avoid.

What kind of parenting styles can cause child trauma?

Parenting styles that can cause trauma in children include authoritarian, overly strict, and controlling. Excessive control in these parenting styles can lead to feelings of helplessness and low self-esteem. 

Parents’ emphasis on blind obedience often leads to harsh discipline methods like spanking and yelling. Children live in perpetual fear, worried about making mistakes or not living up to their parents’ expectations.

What are the characteristics of parents who can cause trauma?

Some characteristics of parents who can cause trauma include being toxic, critical, inflexible, neglectful, gaslighting, narcissistic, manipulative, and emotionally unavailable. These parents create immense emotional distress, disrupting a child’s emotional development and sense of security. Children can develop feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, and anxiety. They may grow up with trust issues and low self-worth.

Can losing a parent cause trauma?

Yes, losing a parent can cause trauma. Children may experience a sense of abandonment, insecurity, and profound grief that can affect their behavior and mental health.

Can parental alienation cause trauma?

Yes, parental alienation can cause trauma. Malicious parent alienation occurs when a child is manipulated or pressured to reject one parent, often in the context of family separation or divorce. This experience creates emotional distress for the child as it disrupts their attachment to the alienated parent.

What are the types of childhood trauma?

Seven types of trauma unrelated to natural disasters are abuse, neglect, dysfunctional family, forced separation from parents, domestic violence, community violence, and bullying. These traumas create an environment where the child experiences continuous stress that is toxic.

Child abuse includes physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse. Studies have found that abuse by parents is linked to parental stress and parenting styles.​3​

Child neglect includes physical neglect and emotional neglect. Uninvolved parents may neglect a child’s basic needs, such as food, clean clothing, protection, medical care, or a safe living environment. Emotionally unavailable parents can lead to emotional neglect when a child doesn’t feel loved, valued, or connected, leading to feelings of rejection by the family.​4​

Dysfunctional families, where children are repeatedly exposed to conflicts or fighting, can disrupt children’s sense of stability. Parental substance abuse and mental illnesses can also create traumatic distress for children.

Forced separation from parents due to causes like divorce, the death of a parent, parental alienation, orphanage, or parental incarceration threatens a child’s survival, leading to feelings of uncertainty and fear about the future.

Witnessing domestic violence of a parent or sibling can instill fear, helplessness, and confusion in children, shaking their trust in the security usually provided by parents.

Community violence, such as shootings and gang activity, can unsettle children and erode their sense of personal safety.

Bullying, whether physical, verbal, or online, undermines a child’s self-esteem, threatens their well-being, and creates chronic stress.

These seven trauma types, categorized by their causes, are the main sources of adverse childhood experiences that affect 64% of children in the U.S.

Childhood trauma types can also be categorized in other ways, including the length of the events, the effects on different functional areas, or other criteria.​5​

How does childhood trauma affect a child?

Childhood trauma affects a child mainly through exposure to intense stress. While physical abuse can leave physical scars, psychological trauma leaves emotional scars that can last for a long time after the physical wounds have healed.

When a child experiences a traumatic event, it sets off their body’s natural “fight or flight” stress response. This traumatic response releases stress hormones, such as cortisol, that prepare the body to face immediate dangers.

However, when a child is exposed to stress that is both frequent and prolonged, the stress turns into what’s known as toxic stress. 

Without adequate support, a child’s nervous system can be incessantly activated by toxic stress. This often leaves traumatized children in a state of hyperarousal, where they become overly sensitive to stress.​6​

Because of the automatic trauma responses, children can develop problems such as a lack of concentration, sleep disturbances, heightened anxiety, nightmares, dissociation, and reenacting.

The symptoms may resemble those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but they are more complicated to treat. Hence, trauma caused by ACEs is also called complex trauma, and the associated disorder is called complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD).

Research shows that unresolved trauma can result in long-term emotional and physical health problems that persist into adulthood. 

The impact of complex trauma is cumulative; the greater the number of ACEs encountered or the longer the exposure, the more negative the health outcomes.

How can childhood trauma impact a child’s brain development?

Repeated child trauma can alter brain structures, including the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. These changes disrupt a child’s ability to regulate emotions, form memories, learn new knowledge, and make decisions effectively. 

Childhood trauma is especially harmful in young children, whose developing brains are more susceptible to harm.​7​

What are the impacts of childhood trauma on the parent-child relationship?

When children experience abuse, neglect, or situations where they are forced to take on adult responsibilities (parentification) or feel alienated, they often grow up with feelings of resentment towards their parents.

In some cases, parents continue to exhibit emotionally abusive behaviors even as their children reach adulthood. This ongoing trauma can lead to adult children feeling the need to distance themselves or sever ties with their parents to safeguard their mental health.

When children experience abuse from others, and their parents do not provide protection or emotional support, the essential trust that forms the foundation of a healthy parent-child relationship is broken.

What role does a child’s family environment play in mitigating or exacerbating the effects of trauma?

A nurturing and understanding family plays an essential role in a child’s healing by providing a safe base where the child feels secure and loved. This environment allows the child to express their feelings and process the trauma. Family members model positive coping strategies to teach the child effective ways to deal with adversity. The presence of caring and attentive caregivers ensures that the child does not feel alone in their journey. Additionally, a supportive family can facilitate access to professional help, such as counseling or therapy, further helping the child’s recovery.

Conversely, a family environment that lacks stability, understanding, or emotional support can magnify the effects of trauma. Having no support can leave a child feeling lonely and helpless. Lack of access to appropriate mental health resources, either due to ignorance or reluctance to acknowledge the issue, further compounds the problem. In such environments, children may adopt maladaptive coping mechanisms and grapple with the long-term effects of trauma.

What are the common signs and symptoms of trauma in children?

Signs of trauma in children include nightmares, flashbacks, fear and anxiety, hypervigilance, negative views or beliefs, dissociative daydreaming, and depression.

The symptoms emerge as the child’s nervous system compensates and prepares for potential dangers. 

This defense mechanism plays a protective role in traumatic environments. However, when the stress responses remain even after the trauma is over, they become maladaptive and lead to various health issues.​8​

What are the signs of child trauma in adults?

Symptoms of childhood trauma in adults include anxiety, depression, and trust issues, which can affect their ability to form healthy relationships. 

The trauma victims might struggle with emotional regulation, leading to mood swings or anger, and exhibit self-destructive behaviors or a heightened stress response. 

Flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive thoughts about the trauma are common, as are physical symptoms like chronic pain, fatigue, or heart disease. 

Difficulty concentrating and memory problems can also be prevalent, impacting their daily functioning and quality of life.

What are the risk and protective factors of childhood trauma?

Risk factors increase a child’s likelihood of experiencing trauma and its adverse effects, while protective factors help mitigate the risks and support the child to cope with traumatic experiences.

Here are some of the risk and protective factors of childhood trauma.​9​

DimensionRisk FactorsProtective Factors
Individual– physical abuse
– emotional abuse
– sexual abuse
– physical neglect
– emotional neglect
– developmental delays
– chronic health conditions
– low self-esteem
– poor coping skills
– difficulties regulating strong emotions
– positive temperament
– high adaptability
– internal locus of control
– social competence
– problem-solving skills
– high self-efficacy
– effective coping strategies
Family– parental mental illness
– parental substance abuse
– parental criminality
– family violence and discord
– divorce
– poor parent-child attachment
– harsh parenting
– poverty
– stable, supportive, and nurturing relationships with caregivers
– positive connections with extended family
– structure, rules, and monitoring
Community– community violence
– lack of affordable housing
– residential instability
– lack of accessibility to services and resources
– discrimination
– high-quality schools
– social connections through peers, mentors, and prosocial organizations
– opportunities to participate in the community
– strong collective efficacy

How to heal from childhood trauma

To heal from child trauma, trauma survivors need a stable, supportive, and understanding environment where they feel safe, heard, and cared for, enabling them to process and recover from their experiences.

As many traumas involve a breach of trust with someone who should have been trustworthy, rebuilding trust is a crucial yet challenging aspect of the healing process.

For child victims, receiving support from non-abusive parents or other caring adults is vital, whereas adult survivors greatly benefit from having a solid and supportive network around them. 

Professional help can effectively facilitate this process.

How to parent a child with trauma

A compassionate and supportive primary caregiver can significantly contribute to children’s recovery from trauma. 

Trauma-informed parents help children by establishing safety and trust. Encouraging open discussion about upsetting events and supporting the child’s emotional processing can help the child make sense of the events. 

Remaining patient through the child’s mood fluctuations and using positive discipline for behavioral challenges in daily life help children develop healthy emotional regulation.

Discussing and learning about the child’s trauma triggers can help parents avoid retraumatizing the child unknowingly.​10​

What is the best book on healing childhood trauma?

One of the best books on healing childhood trauma is Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror by Judith Lewis Herman.

Dr. Herman draws on her extensive clinical experience to outline the steps towards recovery, including establishing safety, reconstructing the trauma story, and restoring the connection between survivor and community.

This empowering book validates the trauma response while providing a hopeful roadmap to regain trust, autonomy, and purpose after life-shattering adverse experiences in childhood.

How to prevent childhood trauma

To prevent child trauma, the CDC has proposed six strategies to prevent ACEs.

Strengthening household financial security creates a stable environment where basic needs are met, reducing family stress and conflict often associated with financial struggles.

Public education and legislative approaches can protect children from potential abuse. Community members are encouraged to intervene or take action when they witness possible child maltreatment.

Early education and childcare can provide children with a safe and nurturing environment, particularly in households where parents might be overwhelmed or lack resources.

Mentors can offer guidance, support, and role models to children who lack these elements at home.

Enhanced primary care, which includes regular screenings and holistic health assessments, can identify and address potential childhood trauma early on. 

Enhancing parenting skills and focusing on family relationships is a direct defense against adverse childhood experiences. Parents can learn effective communication, conflict resolution, and nurturing techniques to avoid dysfunctional parenting practices and create a supportive environment.

We tend to parent the way we were raised. To break the generational trauma cycle, recognize that many standard parenting practices, even those that are not physically abusive, can emotionally harm children because they produce toxic stress for a child’s developing brain.

What are child trauma resources for parents and survivors?

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCSTN) is one of the best childhood trauma resources for parents. NCTSN was founded by Congress in 2000 as part of the Children’s Health Act. This organization addresses childhood trauma with a unique and all-encompassing approach.

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