What is childhood trauma? A brief overview

Original Publishing Date:
November 15, 2022
Last Update:
May 17, 2024

Childhood is often depicted as a stress-free period in life, full of playfulness, fantasy, and exploration. In-between those times or maybe in the absence of those times, exposure to traumatic events can elicit feelings of fear, danger, or shame. Processing those emotions is difficult enough for an adult; processing these feelings as a child easily overwhelms our ability to cope. This is childhood trauma.

There are long term implications of traumatic childhood experiences, but many struggle with identifying, “What counts as a trauma?”. The following is a closer look at defining childhood trauma to understand how specific events may cause some of the post-traumatic symptoms you are dealing with in your day-to-day life.

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Childhood Trauma Defined

Childhood trauma is defined as any scary, violent, or dangerous event or experience where the child is the witness or victim. We like to emphasize that witnessing scary or violent events is enough to negatively impact our mental, emotional, or physical development. Traumatic events overwhelm a child’s ability to cope leaving them feeling threatened, unsafe, and helpless. Childhood trauma can be an isolated incident or a prolonged period of distress that piles up over time. When there are multiple traumatic events or prolonged periods of distress during childhood, this is called complex childhood trauma. Complex trauma leaves larger wounds and might be more difficult to treat.

If you do not see an experience you considered to be traumatic listed, it does not mean what you experienced does not count as trauma

When assessing for childhood trauma events, your therapist might use the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) questionnaire. Measuring the amount of ACE’s an individual has been exposed to can help determine the likelihood that someone will develop post-traumatic symptoms or adverse health effects. Below is a table that includes a definition of each Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) and an example of how these ACE’s may present themselves. Some of these experiences may include community violence, domestic violence, bullying, medical trauma, natural disasters, or refugee trauma. It is important to note that even if you do not see an experience you considered to be traumatic listed, it does not mean what you experienced does not count as trauma. The only person who can ultimately determine if an experience was traumatic is you (3). Being honest with ourselves about our experiences and the ways they have negatively impacted us, is the start of the healing journey.

Types of Trauma (ACE) Definition Examples
Abuse Physical Non-accidental physical injury inflicted on a child Being hit, kicked or burned by your parent/guardian
Emotional Patterns of speech and actions that damage a child’s emotional development or self-worth Continuous criticism, humiliation, blame, or threats from your parent(s)/caregiver
Sexual Sexual activity with a child as an adult or older chid/adolescent An older family relative touches you inappropriately when other adults aren’t around
Neglect Physical A child’s basic survival needs are not met (food, shelter, hygiene, medical care) Being denied food, getting kicked/locked out of the house, or not being taken to the doctor when medical attention is needed
Emotional Parent/guardian fails to meet a child’s emotional needs (affection, support, attention) Being told by a parent “suck it up and rub some dirt on it”
Household Dysfunction Domestic violence Violent or aggressive behavior within the home Witnessing your parents or other family members being verbally or physically aggressive towards each other
Household Mental Illness When someone in the home suffers from mental illness, particularly if the mental illness is untreated A parent has untreated bipolar disorder, PTSD, or depression making it difficult to connect with parent
Household Substance Abuse When someone in the home is abusing drugs/alcohol Dad is intoxicated majority of the time and is irritable when not intoxicated
Parental Divorce/separation Parents end their relationship Primary caregivers separate, divorce, or repartner
Incarcerated Relative When a relative is convicted of a crime an sentenced to time in jail/prison Dad goes to prison for several years and misses out on important stages of your life
Loss of Family Member A family member passes away or leaves the family Grandmother, who you had a close relationship with, dies

Impact of Childhood Trauma on the Developing Brain

Pyramid: Originally from CDC Kaiser Ace Study
Pyramid: Originally from CDC Kaiser Ace Study here

Experiencing trauma in childhood has heightened risks because the brain is still developing. Experiencing a traumatic event during these key developmental milestones can result in longer lasting negative changes to the brain. In fact, brain imaging studies have shown significant changes to areas of the brain such as the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, and amygdala (1). These areas of the brain are associated with learning, executive functioning (planning, memory, attention), and emotional reactivity. Therefore, children exposed to trauma are frequently behind in school readiness, reading ability, and communication skills.

You can probably see by now how traumatic events can have a snowball effect on mental and physical development. Residual effects of childhood trauma can carry on well into adulthood impacting an individual's mental health, physical health, relationships, and even their career. The extent to which these effects are felt can vary from person to person. So why is it that some seem to lean more towards post-traumatic growth while others lean more towards post-traumatic stress?

Risk and protective factors

Risk and protective factors can have a large impact on how an individual will respond to childhood trauma. Risk and protective factors either increase (risk) or reduce (protective) the negative impact of childhood traumatic experiences. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, some of these risk and protective factors include, the severity of the event, the proximity to the event, caregivers reactions, the child’s history of trauma, and family and community factors (2). Below are some examples of risk and protective factors.

Example risk factors:

  • Your primary caregiver is abusive and your other caregiver(s) are often physically and emotionally absent due to working multiple jobs to reduce the families financial stress
  • Your brother was shot and killed. The location he was shot at is right outside of your house which is located in a dangerous neighborhood with a lack of resources to improve public safety

Example protective factors:

  • You were shocked to hear that your parents were getting a divorce since you never saw them fight. Both parents provided you with emotional support and resources, such as therapist/family therapist, throughout the transition of their divorce
  • Your father passed away at a young age, but your grandfather, uncles, coaches, and other male figures quickly jumped in to fill your father’s role. Your mother eventually remarried and you were adopted by your stepfather who you share a great relationship with  
Being honest with ourselves about our experiences and the ways they have negatively impacted us, is the start of the healing journey...This journey can feel daunting, but with a trauma recovery therapist walking alongside you at a pace and style that’s comfortable for you, immense healing is possible.

The physical and emotional impacts of childhood trauma last well beyond the event itself. If you’re interested in learning more about how the impacts of childhood trauma can carry into adulthood please visit my last post, Childhood Trauma in Adults. In this post you will also be able to learn more about different modalities used to recover from childhood trauma. It is never too late to start your journey to healing yourself of the negative impacts of childhood trauma. This journey can feel daunting, but with a trauma recovery therapist walking alongside you at a pace and style that’s comfortable for you, immense healing is possible.

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If you’d like to speak with someone regarding your experiences with childhood trauma please reach out to make an appointment with one our trained trauma recovery experts.

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Citations (APA Style):

  1. Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2017). Supporting brain development in traumatized children and youth. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau. https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubpdfs/braindevtrauma.pdf
  2. Peterson, S. (2018). About Childhood Trauma. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Retrieved September 14, 2022, from https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/about-child-trauma
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, April 2). Adverse childhood experiences (aces). https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/aces/index.html
Katherine Wheeler, MA, LCPC, EMDR

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