How Does Childhood Trauma Affect Mental Health?

You have likely heard of adults who are struggling with their mental health due to childhood trauma. At the same time, you might know of people who had traumatic childhoods who don’t seem to have mental health conditions today. It is true that childhood trauma affects mental health for many years and decades into the future. In fact, something traumatic that happens during the early years could affect someone for a lifetime. It is also true, however, that it is possible to go on to be mentally healthy even after having a traumatic childhood. How does this work? Read on to learn more.

What Is Childhood Trauma?

Children are resilient and often seem to bounce back from adversity. At the same time, there are some events that happen that an adult might not realize is traumatic to the child. And, of course, there are some events or lifestyle circumstances that are traumatic to adults as well as children, and everyone involved might require therapy or intervention in order to prevent or treat mental health issues.

Childhood trauma can be a one-time event, such as surviving a severe car accident, a sole act of violence, or a natural disaster. Or it can repeat over a finite period of time, such as a child being bullied for all of the third grade or being sexually abused over the course of four years by a relative. It can even occur if the child was assumed to be too young to remember the trauma. For example, if a toddler is removed from abusive parents and adopted by a loving family, he or she can suffer the emotional effects of the abuse for the rest of his or her childhood.

Some trauma might not feel like trauma to adults but can impact a child for life. An example of this might be growing up in a dangerous neighborhood. Even if the child is never attacked or the home is never broken into, he or she could develop a feeling of fear that spans many years and into adulthood. Even if that child grows up to be an adult who moves into a safe area with little to no crime, they can still have trouble overcoming that fear.

Types of Lasting Problems Caused by Trauma

One effect that is well-known by many in response to trauma is post-traumatic stress disorder, often abbreviated as PTSD. PTSD is common among veterans who have gone to war and it is also not uncommon among those who have experienced a traumatic event or a series of events. Sometimes, PTSD will occur years after the event.  Signs of PTDS can include nightmares, reliving the event, hallucinations, and the person isolating him- or herself or taking steps to avoid situations that remind him or her of the traumatic event.

Some children who are traumatized very early in life might not remember the event specifically but can suffer from issues such as reactive attachment disorder, or RAD. If a child is abused or severely neglected, for example, he or she might not learn how to attach to a parent figure. If the neglectful or abusive parent is able to improve his or her parenting or if the child goes to live with a loving family, he or she can still have trouble attaching to the parent or caregiver. Note that children who have autism or other developmental disorders can also develop RAD; it is not always related to trauma.

Individuals who go through trauma as children might develop common mental health issues such as anxiety or depression. Symptoms can come and go and might get worse when the person is reminded of the trauma in some way. For example, if a child is in a severe car accident on a snowy day, he or she could develop a phobia or severe anxiety over driving in the snow or being a passenger in a car on a snowy day. A pre-teen who is sexually assaulted during the summer might find that every summer, he or she feel depressed and anxious. Conversely, the anxiety or depression might be constant and might not change depending on the time of year or the current circumstances.

Other people might not show severe signs of mental health disorders but might struggle with anger, insomnia, and other issues. They might also develop what looks like a physical health problem, such as shortness of breath, digestive problems, or headaches. All of these should be evaluated by a doctor, who can determine whether there is a physical issue or if stress and anxiety could be causing these problems.

Helping Someone Get Past Childhood Trauma

If you have a child or teen who has recently dealt with a traumatic event, it is important to watch for signs of PTSD, anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders. Their primary care physician can evaluate them for various mental health conditions that could be stemming from the trauma. A child who cries frequently, who is very angry, or doesn’t interact well with others or who is avoiding people should be evaluated right away.

Various types of therapy can help children, teens, and adults who are struggling following childhood trauma. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help people learn new ways to cope with the strong feelings elicited by the trauma or by thinking about what happened. A type of therapy called EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy can help people who are suffering from PTSD caused by any type of trauma, including childhood trauma. In some cases, medication can help, too.

If you or your loved one are still hurting after going through trauma as a child, it is important to seek help. There is nothing to be ashamed of and there is every reason to believe that with the proper help, you can live a fulfilling life where you are not plagued with intrusive thoughts, depression, anxiety, attachment disorders, or PTSD. Talk to your doctor today about your concerns.