Childhood Trauma in Adults - Understanding how the past effects the present

Original Publishing Date:
April 26, 2022
Last Update:
May 17, 2024

Do you ever find yourself thinking about a memory from childhood and go “wait a second.. that was really messed up!”? As adults we gain different perspectives on our childhood experiences. We wonder if certain events classify as childhood trauma.

I know, I know, your parents are together, you never had reduced lunches, and your parents never abused you. Or even if you did have those experiences: “My childhood experiences do not classify as trauma!” Well, you might be surprised by how big of an impact your parents “bickering” relationship, your mom’s addiction issues, or your dad’s “suck it up and rub some dirt on it” mentality had on you.

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Signs of Childhood Trauma

ACE’s Questionnaire

Childhood trauma can impact us in many ways from our mental health, physical health, relationships, and even work performance. One way to assess childhood trauma is the ACE score, or Adverse Childhood Experience questionnaire. Adverse Childhood Experiences are events that occur between the ages of 0 and 17 years old that were potentially traumatic. These events can be isolated or recurring and typically cause a child to feel unsafe, helpless, and threatened. ACE’s are broken into 3 categories, abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction (2).

Below is a list of ACE’s. Click here to take the ACE’s quiz to determine how likely you are to experience mental and physical health issues as a result of childhood traumatic experiences (1).

  • Abuse
  • Physical
  • Emotional
  • Sexual
  • Neglect
  • Physical
  • Emotional
  • Household Dysfunction
  • Mental Illness
  • Parental substance abuse
  • Incarcerated relative
  • Domestic Violence
  • Divorce
  • Loss of family member
Pyramid: Originally from CDC Kaiser Ace Study

General Signs of Childhood Trauma

If you have difficulty remembering what occurred or struggle to categorize a particular experience, you can assess whether it qualifies as a childhood trauma by assessing your current physical and mental health. Trauma responses can also appear in relationship dynamics and occupational life. Below are some ways childhood trauma can manifest in adulthood:

Occupational functioning:

  • Lower tolerance for occupational stress
  • Self-Sacrificing workaholics
  • People-pleasing/saying “yes” to more responsibilities than you can comfortably handle
  • Tolerating mistreatment
  • Avoids conflict or is involved in excessive amounts of conflict
  • Trouble holding a job
  • Burnout

Mental health:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Alcoholism/substance abuse
  • Feelings of disconnection
  • Difficulty regulating emotions
  • Low self-esteem
  • Strong or child-like reactions to stress
  • Abandonment issues (see relationships)

Relationship quality:

  • Difficulty committing
  • Fear of losing independence
  • Quickly getting attached
  • Fear of partner/friend leaving the relationship
  • Distrust
  • Staying in unhealthy relationships (trauma bond)
  • Separation anxiety

Physical health:

  • Heart disease
  • COPD
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Lower immune functioning
  • Diabetes
  • Chronic pain/illness
  • Obesity
ACE's: Originally source is CDC, Credit is Robert Wood Foundation

How to Heal From Childhood Trauma:

The primary treatment method for healing from childhood trauma is psychotherapy. By engaging in mental health counseling you explore and gain further understanding of your childhood and how these childhood experiences impact your day-to-day functioning. You also learn how to identify triggers, ie. people, places, and things that make your symptoms worse.

You will work alongside your therapist and learn effective and healthier ways to cope with your symptoms. Mental health treatment helps individuals develop a positive image of themselves and the world around them leading to increased overall satisfaction with life.

There are different types of psychotherapy that are beneficial for healing, and below is a summary for some of the most effective psychotherapy methods for treating childhood trauma.

EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization and ReprocessingTherapy

EMDR therapy is the most effective therapy modality for addressing unresolved childhood trauma. This model posits that post-traumatic symptoms are a result of inadequately processed traumatic memories. These unprocessed memories continue to cause distress because they hold the thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and physical feelings experienced at the time of the traumatic event that become activated in current life. When these memories are triggered, the associated thoughts, feelings, emotions, and physical feelings are experienced in the here-and-now.

EMDR therapy uses the biomechanics of the brain and central nervous system to change the way a childhood traumatic memory is stored in the brain. This is done through focusing on the memory while simultaneously engaging in bilateral stimulation (BLS). BLS is typically achieved through rhythmic eye-movements and/or tapping. It involves minimal verbal processing as it focuses more on the internal experience of the memory (2).

EMDR treatment can occur in-person or online and is typically done over the course of 8-12 sessions. Clients typically start noticing a reduction in the vividness of memory imagery, negative thought patterns, intense emotions, and negative physical sensations associated with the memory within as few as 8 sessions (3).

CBT, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

CBT is also one of the most effective types of therapy for treating the effects of childhood trauma. CBT focuses on the interactions between our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. When we make a positive change in one of those domains, there are improvements in the other domain. For example, if each time you procrastinate on a work assignment you experience self-defeating thoughts that lead to feelings of anxiety then we would work on implementing behavioral changes that would reduce procrastination and therefore reducing negative thought and feelings of anxiety.

Experiencing trauma in childhood has the power to alter our ways of thinking. It especially has the power to change how we think, feel, and behave around particular people, places, and situations that remind us of the trauma. When trauma alters our thoughts in negative ways it breeds negative feelings and a wide range of maladaptive behaviors. CBT therapy focuses on challenging and replacing these negative and unhelpful thoughts with ones that elicit more positive feelings and desirable behaviors.

CBT allows clients to gain further insight into their childhood experiences and understand how it impacts their current day-to-day functioning. This promotes forgiveness and compassion towards oneself which leads to improved intimacy in relationships, functioning at work with colleagues, and coping with daily stressors. In addition, CBT provides clients with tools and strategies that can be applied outside of a therapeutic setting. This type of treatment is typically done over the course of 12-20 weeks.

DBT, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy

DBT is a specific type of CBT for treating childhood trauma in adults that focuses on the psychosocial parts of healing and behavior. The overall goal of DBT is to gain mindful awareness of responses to stressful or triggering situations to effectively adapt these responses to adult living.

There are 4 components of DBT, mindfulness, emotional regulation, interpersonal effectiveness, and distress tolerance. The mindfulness component teaches clients to stay in the present moment when they have flashbacks or intrusive thoughts/memories of the childhood trauma event. By learning emotional regulation and distress tolerance skills the client is able to manage their emotional response to childhood memory triggers. Childhood trauma, especially interpersonal relationship disruption, can make it difficult for adults to communicate effectively with others or to trust others. The interpersonal effectiveness component helps adult clients improve their relationship skills by providing tools to maintain healthy and fulfilling relationships. DBT typically takes around 4 to 8 months to complete.

Psychodynamic Therapy

Psychodynamic therapy offers clients the opportunity to gain insight and awareness of themselves by drawing connections between their past traumatic experiences and their presenting issues. In contrast to the other types of therapy noted, Psychodynamic therapy focuses on the unconscious mind. Psychodynamic therapy analyzes your early childhood relationships and attachments. Trauma associated with our early childhood relationships can have a large influence on how we function in our current relationships. Psychodynamic therapy will help clients gain awareness of their unhealthy defense mechanisms. Psychodynamic therapy typically takes 6 months to 2 years to complete.

Childhood Trauma Therapist

Working on healing childhood trauma is a challenging and worthwhile investment. If this article resonates with you and you would like to further explore your childhood experiences and mental health symptoms, connecting with a childhood trauma therapist is your next step.

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Citations (APA Style):

1. American SPCC. (2022, April 6). Take the aces quiz.

2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, April 2). Adverse childhood experiences (aces).

3. EMDR International Association. (2021, September 15).  Experiencing EMDR therapy. Retrieved April 14, 2022, from

Katherine Wheeler, MA, LCPC, EMDR

Meet Katherine Wheeler, MA, LPC, EMDR, your guide to healing and growth. Break free from the past, conquer stress, and discover authentic success with Katherine's expertise in trauma recovery, performance stress, and healing. Schedule your free consultation to start your transformative journey today

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