Childhood trauma: 3 steps to start healing

December 29, 2021 - 20 min read

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What is childhood trauma?

What are adverse childhood experiences?

6 types of childhood trauma

4 ways to recognize childhood trauma in adults

3 steps to help overcome childhood trauma

6 types of childhood trauma therapy

We can often undervalue the relevance of our childhood experiences. We can also underestimate the effect childhood experiences have on us when we become adults. Childhood makes up the pillar we build our personality upon. It's our way of understanding the world around us, our relationships, feelings, and thoughts.

Childhood trauma occurs more often than we may think. According to CDC research, it’s estimated more than 60 percent of American adults have experienced trauma.

When we are young children, we don’t usually have a clear understanding of what is going on and how it may have a traumatic effect on us growing up.

But in reality, we’re constantly exposed to the possibility of a traumatic event. When we are adults we can gain an understanding of the potential effect it has on us. We can also assess how a professional therapist can help us work through it.

To understand what childhood trauma is and how it can affect us, let’s start from the beginning.

What is childhood trauma?

This includes experiencing direct trauma exposure, witnessing trauma, or exposure to trauma.

Common types of childhood traumas in children are:

These traumas can result in distress. Mental health disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSS) and post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) can develop.

childhood-trauma-sad-little-girl

What are adverse childhood experiences?

Every person is unique and we cope with difficult events differently. However, certain events have the potential to be traumatic. These are adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). ACEs are negative experiences that leave a negative lasting effect on the well-being and health of the children. Examples of ACEs include maltreatment, abuse, neglect, or living in a harmful environment.

There are lasting negative effects to experiencing an adverse childhood experience.

ACEs impact children socially, emotionally, and cognitively. While incredibly challenging, overcoming childhood adversity and child trauma is possible.

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6 types of childhood trauma

Physical or sexual abuse

This kind of trauma can cause not only physical damage to the child but also psychological damage that can last for years after it happened. Physical abuse includes any kind of physical violence against a child. It’s sometimes masked as a “discipline measure” by many adults. Sometimes, it can come hand-in-hand with substance abuse.

Sexual abuse can mean the child experiences direct sexual acts. But sexual abuse doesn’t always have to include the child. It can also occur when a child witnesses a sexual act at a very early age.

For example, some examples of sexual abuse include:

  • A child experiencing their parents’ sexual intercourse
  • A child witnessing another adult acting in a sexual manner
  • A child witnessing pornography
  • Sexual assault

Childhood abuse and child maltreatment have significant impacts on their overall well-being.

Sudden death due to murder or suicide

Unfortunately, some children have to experience the loss of a loved one or family member at a young age. However, when this death is due to murder or suicide, the experience can become very traumatic for them.

A murder can lead to trauma at any age. It’s an especially traumatic event if the child witnessed the murder or suicide. But it can also be extremely traumatic if the child knows the detailed story.

On the other hand, a loved one dying by suicide can leave a very deep wound in a child, especially if this person was a parent or caregiver. In these situations, the usual predominant emotions are anger and guilt. A person might ask questions or think things like: Why did this person choose to leave me? I could have done something to prevent this.

Kidnapping

This is an incredibly traumatic and terrible experience for anyone to have, but even more so for a child. Children do not have the tools and ability to protect themselves on their own. They rely on adults and caregivers for protection and safety. Imagine knowing this as a child, and being kidnapped and held hostage, with a sense of uncertainty, fear, and feeling unsafe.

Violence in their household

This happens when the child is exposed to a violent environment at home. This can include physical abuse towards the child but that’s not always the case. For example, a child could witness domestic violence between parents, siblings, or other adults. A child could also be a victim of the violence, but it’s not always necessarily the case. Either way, this type of trauma has a definite impact on a child.

Neglect

I like to call neglect the “invisible trauma.” Neglect is by no means less important (quite the opposite, in fact). But because it is often difficult to identify this as a traumatic experience, it isn’t as evident as other kinds of trauma.

This can include acts such these:

Very often, neglect by itself doesn’t imply violence or physical damage. Usually, it’s much more indirect and normalized by the children who experience it. However, because this is so difficult to identify, it can become a very deep-rooted trauma that can influence a person’s mental health later in life.

4 ways to recognize childhood trauma in adults

Depending on the kind of early childhood trauma, different symptoms or health problems may be experienced. However, common effects of trauma may include some of them below.

Difficulty establishing healthy relationships

Adults who are healing from childhood trauma usually learn to interact with others in unhealthy ways. Sometimes, these interactions result in certain relational behaviors. These will depend on the kind of trauma they have experienced and what they have learned about others through this early life experience.

For example, if a person has child trauma due to neglect in their childhood, they may feel like they aren’t deserving of other people’s affection. This pattern develops because that is what they were led to believe when they were younger, oftentimes by family members or loved ones.

As a result, this person may stay in relationships where they are mistreated and neglected by their partner. They won’t look for a different relationship because they feel like they don’t deserve it.

Hyper-vigilance

This is a human reaction for those who have experienced trauma. Hyper-vigilance consists of feeling constantly threatened. For example, it could be the fear of being attacked or trapped at any moment. Oftentimes, this is when an adult becomes very aware of their surroundings when in a new environment. For example, they could be hyper-vigilant when meeting a new person. They could also be hyper-vigilant in physical spaces or situations. Either way, this reaction is a result of childhood trauma.

Depression and anxiety

Apart from other mental health risk factors, people can also experience depression and/or anxiety as a result of childhood trauma. These two disorders usually appear hand-in-hand and can make the person feel hopeless and isolated. If you’re struggling with depression or anxiety, you should consult the help of mental health professional.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder. PTSD occurs when an individual is exposed to a traumatizing event. According to the DSM, it’s considered to be an anxiety disorder. People who have PTSD often have flashbacks of the trauma and are so distressed by their triggers that they go to significant lengths to avoid them. This comes with more symptoms of its own, such as changes in mood, flashbacks, nightmares, and panic attacks.

childhood-trauma-father-child

3 steps to help overcome childhood trauma

The effects of childhood trauma may seem like they can’t be cured. But with the right approach, you can overcome childhood trauma and learn to cope.

1. Recognize the trauma

The adult must acknowledge this certain childhood experience as trauma. It’s this first step of coming to terms with how the trauma has affected them — and accepting that it’s OK. This will help them give meaning to their current difficulties and make sense of their struggles.

2. Be patient with yourself

Self-criticism and guilt can be very common when it comes to adults who have lived through a traumatic childhood. Some people may ask: Why do I act this way? What’s wrong with me? I could have dealt with this in a better way. These thought patterns can lead to hopelessness and frustration.

The key here is to stop and think: you were not responsible for what happened. Your childhood trauma has left a scar — and you’re trying your best to heal. But just like all wounds, it’s important to take the time to heal correctly. Be patient and loving with yourself. Treat yourself like you would a best friend.

3. Reach out for help

Rely on loved ones for emotional support and understanding. In these cases, one of the key components is feeling heard, understood, and validated.

Especially with childhood trauma, one can often feel alone and isolated. It’s common to feel like no one will understand or empathize. But in reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth. If we give people the chance, they can become a great support system for us.

We must not forget the importance of seeking help from a mental health professional who is trained in trauma treatment. A clinician can help heal these deep wounds to improve relationships. They can also help identify unhealthy patterns and coping mechanisms — and improve your mental fitness.

6 types of therapy for childhood trauma

The events that occur to us in our childhood can cause a huge impact on our adult life. Usually, as time goes by, we reject those memories and bury them as if they have never happened. However, that’s not a healthy coping mechanism.

There are several types of adulthood therapy to help treat childhood trauma.

Cognitive behavioral therapy

This approach in therapy aims at finding the connection between our behaviors and our thoughts and feelings. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) focuses on the current problems and symptoms of the patient.

Our thoughts and feelings are connected to our behavior. Because of that, it can make us develop behavioral patterns that are dysfunctional in our daily routine. Over time, these behaviors impact our developing relationships.

Our brain creates patterns that help us survive. As humans, we specialize in creating patterns to help reduce pain. However, those patterns are often not the best long-term strategy. To make an analogy, when somebody is wounded, making a tourniquet can make them survive enough time to be treated at a hospital. But that tourniquet is not the best nor the definitive solution for that wound.

All in all, CBT will help you obtain a healthier and more balanced thinking pattern.

Psychodynamic therapy

Different from the cognitive-behavioral approach, this therapy focuses on the unconscious mind. Psychodynamic therapy tries to understand the meaning of the trauma and where the patient may be stuck within it.

In order to do that the therapist focuses on the impact trauma has had on the patient and on their relationships. This includes emphasizing childhood experiences and current relationships. Through this practice, the patient can understand what coping mechanisms are taking a role in the patient’s life.

Like cognitive behavioral therapy, psychodynamic therapy aims at changing behaviors. It’s the method to reaching that objective that differentiates the two therapy styles.

Cognitive processing therapy (CPT)

Cognitive processing therapy is a specific type of cognitive-behavioral therapy. It focuses on understanding the trauma. Using psycho-education, this therapy raises awareness of the relationship between thoughts and emotions. Using psycho-education, this therapy aims at raising awareness of the relationship between thoughts and emotions. It also helps identify automatic thoughts.

This therapy will help you identify patterns of unhelpful thinking. It will also help you evaluate and modify those thoughts and beliefs that the circumstances of the trauma have generated in you. The idea of this therapy is that if you can change what you think, you can change how you feel.

Narrative exposure therapy (NET)

This treatment for trauma aims at building a chronological narrative. It essentially looks at the patient's biography by focusing on the traumatic events. With professional help, the person will reconstruct the traumatic events. But alongside the traumatic life events, the person will also reconstruct the positive events.

This allows for a thoughtful reflection upon their life as a whole. It can help to develop a sense of identity and reduce the pain that accompanies those memories.

childhood-trauma-woman-smiling-outside

Prolonged exposure therapy

This is a kind of cognitive-behavioral therapy that is often used and very effective when treating PTSD. This is an effective and ideal therapy style when addressing childhood trauma.

Prolonged exposure therapy can include in vivo exposure, imaginal exposure, or a combination of both.

  • Imaginal exposure: On the other hand, imaginal exposure involves gradually exposing the patient to memories of the traumatic events in order to reduce their negative impact. This helps to reduce PTSD symptoms.
  • Vivo exposure: This consists of gradually exposing the patient to stimuli that remind them of the trauma. Vivo exposure helps to awaken PTSD symptoms.

With both kinds of exercises, the final goal is to reduce their negative symptoms and approach the trauma in a healthier and non-harmful way.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)

EMDR therapy helps to reduce the emotional negative response to traumatic events. EMDR focuses on the traumatic memory while working with bilateral stimulation. Bilateral stimulation can include eye movement, tactile taps, tones, or even the use of vibrations and buzzers. Through EMDR, the patient walks through the traumatic experience in a safe space. This helps to reduce emotionally upsetting reactions.

Start healing

Childhood is a very delicate period in our life. It’s important not to underestimate the power our past has on our present. If we see our life as a building, our upbringing and the events that surround it are the foundation for it.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) is an organization created serve children and families who experience or witness traumatic events. This includes anything from child abuse and neglect to complex trauma and emotional abuse. Lean on clinicians, resources like NCTSN, and human services to get help.

The only way to understand who we are is to explore who we were. This starts with looking at the events that have made us become the person we are today. In that process, we will find a lot of important information to work on. It is important to “normalize” trauma and to be humble enough to work on it with therapy.

In the end, trauma is like a wound that hasn’t healed properly. It takes time, care, attention, and thoughtfulness. No matter what life events you might've experienced, it is possible to heal.

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Published December 29, 2021

Alexia Roncero

BetterUp Care Coach

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