Healing from childhood trauma can be a very lonely experience.
You might summon the courage to confide in your friends, but their well-meaning responses often leave you feeling more isolated and misunderstood than ever.
“Why am I the only one feeling this way?”
“Am I losing my mind?”
“I’m such a failure.”
These feelings are prevalent among childhood trauma survivors.
What Is Childhood Trauma
Childhood trauma refers to deeply distressing or adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that occur during a person’s formative years, typically from infancy through adolescence.
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
There are roughly 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.
Type II trauma involves prolonged, recurring experiences that leave the child feelings of helplessness and surpassing their normal coping mechanisms and defenses. This type of trauma is commonly referred to as complex trauma.
In most cases, both types of childhood trauma share four defining characteristics.2
A key shared feature of nearly all traumatic childhood is the ability to mentally revisit or reexperience the dreadful event or sequence of events. It can happen even if the original experience wasn’t visual. Memories can also include touch, body position, or smell.
These visual recollections can be triggered by cues or reminders of the traumatic event or sometimes surface unbidden.
Traumatized children often demonstrate reenactment, which is observable during their pretend play or in their drawings after the traumatic event. They might repeatedly act out or depict scenes that closely resemble or symbolize their traumatic experiences.
Some reenactments might occur so often that they become part of the child’s personality traits. Over time, these traits could evolve into personality disorders in adult life or manifest as physical illnesses.
The child often becomes conditioned to fear particular cues that precede or coincide with the traumatic event. These fears often persist into adulthood. They tend to be ordinary things, such as darkness, strangers, large objects, being alone, being outdoors, food, animals, and vehicles.
Changed attitudes about the world
Children with unresolved trauma often feel like their future is limited. This feeling is pretty noticeable since kids usually dream big about the future. Some might also start to believe that they can’t trust authority figures or rely on anyone for protection.
These limited views of the future often reflect a fear that more bad things are going to happen. Traumatized kids start to see vulnerability everywhere, especially in themselves.
Examples of Childhood Trauma
Here are some examples of distressful events that can result in childhood trauma.
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Verbal abuse
- Emotional neglect
- Dysfunctional family
- School shooting
- Community violence
- Accidents / serious injuries
- Forced separation from parents
- Chronic illness
- Divorce of caregivers
- Satanic cult
- Witnessing domestic violence
- Natural disasters
- Sudden death of a parent
Also See: Signs of Childhood Trauma
Effects of Childhood Trauma
The following are the effects of Type I childhood trauma. If this developmental trauma is left untreated, it may persist into adulthood.3
- Intrusive memories, imagery, sounds, and smells
- Distress at reminders
Denial, avoidance, and numbing
- Restricted social events where reminders may be present
- Avoid or suppress thoughts or feelings about the event
- Memory loss about the event
- Hypervigilance with fear of recurrence
- Heightened stress response
- Exaggerated startle response
- Sleep disturbance
- Cannot focus on schoolwork
Children who have suffered from chronic, repetitive Type II trauma are more likely to develop complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD), a more complex form of PTSD.
Complex trauma often involves a disturbance in a child’s attachment process and is also called attachment trauma.
It typically occurs in situations where the individual cannot escape due to various constraints, such as physical, psychological, developmental, environmental, or social limitations. Examples include child abuse, domestic violence, and sex trafficking.
CPTSD includes the symptoms of PTSD as well as the following trauma response.4
- Emotional dysregulation – trouble dealing with stress and anger and showing impulsive behavior.5
- Interpersonal difficulties – problems forming and maintaining healthy relationships.re
- Dissociation – a psychological defense mechanism that disrupts a person’s normal integration of thoughts, emotions, memories, and sense of identity.
- Somatic symptoms – chronic pain, sleep disorders, digestive issues, and a weakened immune system.6
- Mental illness – depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, dissociation, acute stress disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc.7
- Personality disorders – borderline personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, etc.8
- Maladaptive mechanism – substance abuse, alcoholism, etc.9
- Worse physical health – weakened immune system from chronic stress
How To Heal From Your Childhood Trauma
The first step in healing from unresolved childhood trauma involves facing painful experiences and ceasing to live 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.10
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, and it is relational. It is often caused by one’s parent or primary caregiver.
Relationships can help heal relational trauma.11
Unfortunately, attachment trauma is not a socially acceptable subject. Saying anything negative about one’s parents is taboo. You may be labeled as ungrateful, unappreciative, or a terrible child, despite having endured 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 essential.
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.12
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.13
With the help of your therapist, break the cycle and establish a healthier lifestyle.
Stop maladaptive 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.
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.
Remember, you are not alone, and you are worth it.
Also See: How to help children heal from childhood trauma
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- 10.Dorresteijn S, Gladwin TE, Eekhout I, Vermetten E, Geuze E. Childhood trauma and the role of self-blame on psychological well-being after deployment in male veterans. European Journal of Psychotraumatology. Published online January 14, 2019. doi:10.1080/20008198.2018.1558705
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