According to the National Library of Medicine (NLM), trauma, including one-time, multiple, or long-lasting repetitive events, affects everyone differently. Some individuals may clearly display criteria associated with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but many more individuals will exhibit resilient responses or brief subclinical symptoms or consequences that fall outside of diagnostic criteria. The impact of trauma can be subtle, insidious, or outright destructive. How an event affects an individual depends on many factors, including characteristics of the individual, the type and characteristics of the event(s), developmental processes, the meaning of the trauma, and sociocultural factors.

Traumatic events can be defined as experiences that put either a person or someone close to them at risk of serious harm or death. These can include road accidents, violence/prolonged abuse, natural disasters, and serious illnesses.

Cheryl K., LCSW, at Corner Canyon Health Care (CCHC), stated that childhood trauma is a medical, psychosocial, and public policy issue that causes immense consequences for both victims and society. After all, almost half of American children have experienced at least one type of childhood trauma. This translates to nearly 35 million kids. What’s even more concerning is that a third of American youth (age 12-17) have experienced two or more types of childhood adversity that are likely to affect their mental and physical health into adulthood. The implications of childhood trauma are significant, which is why early intervention is so important.

How Can Childhood Trauma Affect Mental Health?

It’s important to note that each traumatic incident is unique, affecting victims in different ways. For some children, an isolated sexual assault, or watching a loved one suffer, can lead to ongoing stress. Whereas other children live in a dangerous neighborhood, and while it feels like daily life, the implications can be significant. Each case is unique and requires specialized treatment. Depending on the severity of the incident and the support available many children experience lingering effects through adolescence and adulthood. These effects include everything from changes in eating habits to loss of interest in activities, anger to insomnia.

Unfortunately, many parents believe that if a child is young enough, they won’t remember an incident, but this is not the case. When left untreated, the effects of trauma often last into adulthood. Diminishing mental health can burrow deep inside, contributing to chronic physical illness. For example, a 2019 survey found that unresolved trauma was linked to an increased risk of cancer. Research shows that childhood trauma may also increase a child’s risk of depression, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic conditions. There are various theories to explain this, including the way a child’s body develops through adolescence and adulthood. When a child is under constant or extreme stress, the immune system responds. Stress can impair the development of the brain and nervous system, leading to future complications in the body and brain. Of course, not all children who witness or endure a horrific event will develop complications with their mental or physical health. However, if signs of trauma are present, you must recognize them. Early intervention can help prevent your child from experiencing the ongoing effects of trauma into adulthood.

Childhood Trauma and PTSD

In the most extreme cases of childhood trauma, distressing events can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to the National Center for PTSD, up to 15% of girls and 6% of boys develop PTSD following a traumatic event. This results in a range of symptoms, many of which negatively affect a child’s well-being, relationships, and overall quality of life.

These Childhood Trauma and PTSD Symptoms include:

  • Anxiety and panic attacks
  • Anger and aggression
  • Depression
  • Mistrust
  • Fear
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Self-harming behaviors
  • Nightmares

Children with PTSD often re-experience the trauma they endured. They may also avoid any situations that remind them of that event — or series of events. These children often become hyper-vigilant, anticipating something bad.

Childhood Trauma and Emotional Trauma

When people hear the word trauma, they often think of abuse. Although childhood abuse plays a pivotal role in many cases, the causes of childhood trauma range from life-changing car accidents to the death of a loved one. Emotional or psychological trauma is when your psyche is damaged following an extremely frightening or distressing event. These events can alter a child’s ability to cope and function. Although the majority of severe traumatic experiences involve a life-threatening situation, any situation that makes a child feel scared, overwhelmed, or alone can be traumatic — even when there is no physical harm. The link between trauma and a child’s emotional response is important. Many children who experience trauma later have a difficult time expressing themselves or healthily managing their emotions. Stress reactions are often internalized, contributing to symptoms of depression and anxiety. When these feelings and symptoms are not addressed, they typically resurface as an adult, impairing one’s ability to maintain stable relationships, hold a job, or simply enjoy life.

What Percentage of Mental Health is Caused by Childhood Trauma?

Childhood trauma is a complex subject, covering physical, mental, and emotional trauma. Sadly, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) estimates that two-thirds of all children report a traumatic incident by the age of 16. These traumatic incidents can lead to severe and complicated mental health issues into adulthood. There is a vast amount of research on this subject, and depending on certain variables, figures and stats vary. In a 2019 study, researchers looked at 354 outpatients, aged 14 to 35 years old. These individuals had been diagnosed with anxiety disorders, mood disorders, psychiatric disorders, and adjustment disorders. A total of 100 healthy controls were also analyzed. It was found that nearly 30% of incidences of mental disorder was associated with adversities and trauma in childhood. For example, the most common types of trauma were emotional abuse (59%) and physical neglect (54%) in the mood disorder group. Another 2018 study drew on the experiences of participants in the Great Smoky Mountain. The study followed 1,420 children over 22 years. After the researchers accounted for adversities like low income and family hardships, as well as adult trauma, the relationship between childhood trauma and hardships in adulthood remained clear. Nearly 31% of children had experienced one traumatic event, 22.5% experienced two traumas, and 14.8% experienced three or more. Those with a history of trauma were 1.5 times more likely to have psychiatric symptoms and experience family instability than those without. Those who experienced childhood trauma were also 1.2 times more likely to develop substance abuse issues or depression.

What Does Childhood Trauma Look Like in Adults?

Again, it’s tough to generalize, as each situation and the individuals involved are unique. However, many adults who experience childhood trauma continue to showcase troubling symptoms into adulthood – many of which significantly affect their health and quality of life. Some experience immense guilt or shame, whereas others become angry sometimes, even abusive themselves. Regardless of how childhood trauma presents itself in adults, the implications can be long-lasting.

Symptoms of Childhood Trauma in Adults

Perhaps you are a loved one of someone who experienced childhood trauma – or you may be the one who is dealing with the effects of childhood trauma as an adult. Either way, it’s never too late to receive the help you need. Be mindful of these common symptoms if you or someone you know endured trauma as a child:

  • Depression, anxiety, or panic attacks
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Lack of concentration
  • Night terrors
  • Physical illness
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Low energy
  • Isolation
  • Eating disorders
  • Impulsiveness or compulsion

How to Heal from Childhood Trauma

Healing from childhood trauma takes time and professional support. A licensed therapist or clinician will suggest a step-by-step treatment plan tailored to your needs and goals. Depending on where you seek treatment, you may have access to some or all of the following treatment methods:

  • EMDR
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • Family and group therapy
  • Inpatient trauma residential treatment
  • Psychodynamic therapy
  • Brainspotting

However, the most effective treatment plans often combine several treatment methods – especially when addressing co-occurring conditions. For example, those who suffer from PTSD face an increased risk of alcohol addiction.

This article is provided by Dr. Ralph Kueche (Child Psychologist). Dr. Kuechle is a Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychologist who specializes in treating children and their families who may be struggling with mood and behavioral issues. Learn more about Dr. Kuechle.