Understanding the Effects of Childhood Trauma

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Most people will experience trauma in their lifetime, and everyone responds to this differently. Some people experience few lasting effects, while others can develop various health conditions, including complex PTSD, anxiety, depression and even increased risk of heart disease.

Traumatic events can profoundly impact young people and cause a range of complex reactions, coping strategies and even physiological changes to develop as they grow older. It is thought that support systems significantly impact the effects of childhood trauma, and stable, loving relationships are key. In addition, knowing when to seek professional support for a child can help mitigate the often debilitating effects of childhood trauma exposure and PTSD.

What Is Childhood Trauma?

Childhood trauma can be caused by one or more significantly distressing events that cause fear and terror to the extent that a child cannot cope. The scope of this can vary greatly from person to person, and a range of factors affect how an event affects each individual. Two children could experience the same event, and while one could be traumatised, potentially developing PTSD symptoms, the other may not.

Events or situations that cause childhood trauma are often referred to as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Adverse childhood experiences are a relatively new field of research that looks into the long-term mental and physical health issues faced by children who live through such events and how the adverse effects can increase as children are exposed to more or compounded adverse childhood experiences.

Examples of Adverse Childhood Experiences

A vast range of things can cause childhood trauma, from bullying to parental separation, although not everyone who experiences these will be negatively affected. Common adverse childhood experiences include:

  • Sexual abuse
  • Parental or family substance abuse
  • Domestic violence
  • Natural disaster
  • Community violence (such as living in a neighbourhood with high crime rates)
  • Emotional abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Neglect
  • Major accidents
  • A parent or guardian in prison
  • A parent or guardian who struggles with their mental health

Childhood trauma does not only come from an event that directly affects a child; watching a loved one battle a serious illness or exposure to violent images can also be traumatising.

Responses to Childhood Trauma Exposure

Up to 15% of girls and 6% of boys will develop PTSD after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, and the symptoms they show or responses that develop can vary. Some may experience flashbacks, with specific sounds, smells, places or feelings triggering a sensation of viscerally re-experiencing the trauma in their mind repeatedly. Some may also try to avoid anything that reminds them of the trauma. This may appear as challenging or moody behaviour but is, in fact, a learned coping mechanism. It is also common for children to re-enact the trauma in artwork and play.

Hypervigilance is a common response to childhood trauma that carries into adulthood, often causing relationship problems or anxiety. This develops as a result of children believing that they missed warning signs that could have predicted the traumatic event. Throughout childhood and into adolescence, they may become hypervigilant in searching for signs that something terrible might happen as a way of preventing future traumas.

Alternatively, some children may become reckless or numb to certain emotional responses. This can lead to risky decision-making throughout life and even put them at higher risk of re-traumatisation or re-victimisation. This coping mechanism response to trauma that causes children to tune out to threats in their environment can also be associated with antisocial behaviour and increased risk of incarceration.

Other common responses to childhood traumatic events include:

  • Acting younger than they are, including urinating in their underwear and sucking their thumb.
  • Finding it difficult to focus or maintain attention on a task.
  • Feeling depressed or anxious.
  • Finding difficulty being affectionate with others.
  • Showing increased levels of anger and aggression or generally struggling to moderate emotional responses.
  • Experiencing issues in school or recreational activities.
  • Have trouble sleeping which can develop into insomnia.
  • No longer showing interest in activities they once enjoyed.
  • Seeming detached, numb, or non-responsive.
  • Worrying about dying young.

Physical Health Issues Caused by Traumatic Events

The effect of traumatic experiences on physical well-being is increasingly recognised in trauma treatment. Individuals who have experienced trauma as children or in young adulthood can experience an impaired immune system in addition to more serious or chronic illnesses.

In particular, exposure to a series of traumatic events, such as childhood abuse, repeatedly activates the body’s biological stress response. The stress response is crucial for survival, activating interacting systems that work harmoniously to prepare the body to protect itself against threats. Historically, this would have served for survival when humans faced threats such as predators and is thought to have been key to human survival. The stress response alters metabolic resources from the state of balance called homeostasis toward a state that prepares the body for fight or flight. Neglected children and those who experience maltreatment in particular experience this change in brain chemistry repeatedly, to the extent that stress hormones can remain elevated. Additionally, for traumatised children that become hypervigilant, the ongoing stress causes a similar result.

Repeated activation of the stress response during childhood while the body is still growing can result in physiological and biological changes. For example, studies have shown that many children who live through adverse experiences have a smaller prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for executive functioning. In addition to changes in brain structure, high levels of the stress hormone cortisol can create imbalance and inflammation in the nervous system that affects immunity, digestion, appetite development, brain function and emotional regulation.

Children who experience childhood trauma are also more likely to develop the following:

  • Cancer
  • Stroke
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Obesity
  • Addiction
  • Diabetes

Early intervention and access to mental health services can significantly mitigate risks associated with traumatic stress in a child’s life.

Mental Health Issues Associated with Childhood Trauma

A child who lives through a traumatic experience or experiences trauma regularly can develop a range of mental health issues that affect daily life.

The traumatic impact of school violence, child abuse and other traumatic experiences affect a child’s sense of safety and well-being. In particular, maltreated children who are neglected or abused by their primary caregivers or authority figures can develop a powerful sense of mistrust in the world and themselves, affecting their ability to navigate social interactions and form relationships. They may also profoundly feel that they are unlovable, causing issues in adolescence or adulthood in romantic relationships.

Other common mental health problems linked to childhood trauma are:

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Anxiety
  • Dissociative identity disorder
  • Depression or major depressive disorder
  • Suicide attempts
  • Self-harm

Contact Us

At The Wave Clinic, we understand how difficult the lingering effects of childhood trauma can be and how important it is to adequately address the symptoms and the root cause of trauma as children grow. If you are worried about changes in a child’s mental or physical health and are worried it may be linked to trauma exposure, contact us to talk to a mental health professional today. The Wave Clinic specialises in supporting young people to become the best version of themselves.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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