How Does Childhood Trauma Impact Our Current Selves?

Did you have a rough childhood? You’re not alone. About half of American children have experienced at least one type of serious childhood trauma, with a third of that group experiencing at least two traumatic events.

Unfortunately, these early experiences don’t just disappear once the child grows into an adult. For many people, these haunting memories leave lasting and complicated consequences. They can stunt identity formation, attribute to mental illness, and hinder healthy relationships.

Low Self-Esteem

Early traumatic experiences can damage a small child’s concept of self-worth. Children tend to internalize the world around them. Therefore, if something bad happens, they believe they are bad. For example, mom and dad divorce, the child may take responsibility for the split.

When there’s physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, children learn that the world is unsafe. They learn that a “wrong move” can lead to severe consequences. As a result, many of these children struggle with heightened fear and insecurity in their adult lives.

Lack of Identity

All children need freedom and permission to explore themselves. This is how we form our opinions and create our identities. However, trauma can stunt that process. Trauma can paint dark clouds on an otherwise sunny day, and the clouds may persist much longer than the sunshine.

Many people who experience trauma learn to survive and react. They live in a perpetual fight-or-flight state of mind. This state keeps them prepared for future trauma, but it also compromises one’s ability to explore individual needs, desires, and preferences. As a result, many individuals struggle in adulthood with knowing who they are.

Unhealthy Relationships

Trauma by primary caretakers can cause early attachment wounds. If a child doesn’t feel safe with the person who is supposed to love him or her unconditionally, that entrenched feeling may prevail through life.

To cope, people act out in various ways. Some may desperately cling and become emotionally attached to others. They want to experience the love and security they felt they didn’t have as a child. However, this clinginess and desperation often turns people away, which only deepens the sense of abandonment.

Others shut down and stay guarded in relationships. They don’t let anyone get too close because they don’t want to get hurt. These people may also experience a profound sense of loneliness and misunderstanding.

Finally, some people will attract and attach to people who replicate their abusive caretakers. The familiarity and comfort with the chaos provides a sense of safety. However, this cycle only leads to more traumatic experiences and a diminished sense of self-worth.

Detachment and Apathy

Trauma can lead to numbness and indifference. People experiencing these symptoms may struggle to remember what happened to them. They may also deny or minimize how bad things really were.

These symptoms act as safety nets. They protect the individual from feeling the intense emotions often surrounded by the trauma. However, they can also stunt all the other positive feelings as well. As a result, these people may move through life feeling completely disconnected from themselves and others.

Depression and Anxiety

Trauma and mental illness are inherently linked. While trauma may not cause mental illness, it can be a culprit in the emerging symptoms that develop after the adverse experiences.

People who experienced childhood trauma may be more prone to conditions like depression and anxiety. If children were not allowed to express their feelings or get help for the struggles they faced, they may be likely to bottle up the emotions. Or, they may act out with rage, anger, or rebellion. These reactions can be underlying symptoms of mental illness.

Substance Use

There is a strong association between trauma histories and drug and alcohol use. Research on adolescents receiving substance abuse treatment indicates that more than 70% of patients reported a history of trauma exposure.

There are many theories behind this phenomenon. Children in stressful homes may have fewer boundaries or a sense of structure provided from their caretakers- which can lead to more rebellious and risky behavior. Others may turn to self-medicating to cope with trauma that hasn’t been addressed. Finally, children struggling with substance use have a greater chance of having family members who also struggle with addiction, which can maintain a reinforcing cycle.

Moving Forward From Childhood Trauma

While everyone responds to childhood trauma differently, there’s no doubt that the painful associations can follow people into their adult lives. Awareness of these associations tends to be the first step. However, learning how to change your current thinking and reactions can take time and serious effort.

Seeking therapy for trauma may be one of the best decisions you make for yourself. Therapy can help you talk about what happened without judgment, criticism, or assumptions. It can also help you discover healthier ways to cope with your emotions.

Are you interested in learning more about how therapy can help you? Reach out today to connect.


Willow Counseling, Nashville, TN

Willow Counseling, PLLC exists to provide quality trauma-informed mental health counseling to the Nashville community, recognizing the interconnectedness of our emotional, spiritual and physical selves. We work together to alleviate symptoms, learn better coping skills, relieve burdens, remove the pain of trauma, and so much more. However, our greatest desire is for you to know what it means to feel purpose and joy again and to recognize the strength and worth you have to offer the world.

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