Childhood Trauma Affects Adulthood
Complex childhood trauma is subtle but has long-term consequences.
While it is vital to treat these ailments that arise, it’s also important to address the root experiences that have caused these things to grow in the first place. For many, that means revisiting traumatic events that were experienced at an impressionable age – it means uncovering childhood trauma.
What is Complex Trauma?
Most of us can recognize what trauma looks like. When we think of trauma, we often think of momentous, life-changing events. We think of horrific instances of sexual assault, car accidents, natural disasters, and war—events that divide a person’s life into “before” and “after.” These are the experiences that victims are often plagued by in the form of flashbacks and nightmares.
What we don’t think or talk much about is something called complex trauma. Complex trauma is a subtle, “slow burn” type of childhood experience that affects a person just as profoundly.
Complex trauma is difficult to pinpoint, describe, and recall. They might appear as “snapshots” from childhood, like waiting at the window late into the night for an often-absent parent to come home. They could appear as a general feeling of distrust or detachment, a feeling that sneaks into the person’s adult relationships, even when those relationships are with people who aren’t harmful.
Complex trauma is not always about what happened to a person; it’s also about what did not happen. Perhaps the person wasn’t given basic respect or a sense of reliability from the adults in their lives.
Trauma and the effect on brain development
Childhood is a crucial time for brain development, and this development during the early years of life is key to how we learn, respond and behave later on. Often, a child’s brain is compared to that of a dry sponge – it is ready and quickly able to retain a lot of water (or in this case, information).
But brain development is not dependent on the biological process. Rather, it depends on environmental factors including prenatal care, nutrition, and parenting. Through these experiences, information is collected and interpreted, and it is here that a child learns fundamental life lessons like the boundaries of right and wrong, their ethical compass, how to critically think, and how to safeguard against possible dangers.
Negative past experiences that cause trauma, however (or traumatic experiences like the absence of a parental caregiver) have a profound effect on how a child’s brain will develop, and this will change how they respond to society in later life. For example, a traumatic experience in childhood may prime the brain to be expecting fear around all corners. In adulthood, this will lead to a heightened sense of stress in everyday life, and chronic stress is determined as ‘one of the six leading causes of death’.
Understanding and accepting our past experiences, then, is crucial to overcoming the maladies that arise in adulthood.
10 items surveyed included questions about physical and sexual abuse, as well as:
- Did a parent or older adult in the household often swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you?
- Did you often feel that your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?
- Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic or who used street drugs?
In this huge sample of participants, 64 percent of people endorsed at least one item. A full 12.5 percent of people experienced a whopping four or more. That’s a big deal—four or more of these items include profound neglect and victimization for a child, someone who is trying to develop a sense of self in a world where the people they’re most dependent on is the ones harming them the most. Would you have guessed that one in eight people called experiences like these their childhoods?
Early in my training, even knowing these stats, I’d find myself caught off guard. If I didn’t directly ask a patient about trauma, assuming that they didn’t fit the “profile” or that they would bring it up if it happened to them, it would go undiscussed.
Now, even if I miss the signs in the beginning, I can pick up on a patient’s underlying trauma because it always finds its way to the forefront. It’s not only about nightmares and flashbacks—complex childhood trauma affects the entire body and mind. Let’s acknowledge that the effects of trauma can be hard to recognize. Here are three that we often don’t discuss.
Effect #1: Trauma can burrow down deep into the body, contributing to chronic illness.
Complex childhood trauma can cause physical scars in addition to psychological ones. Since the first ACEs study came out, showing how common negative childhood events are, health scientists from many fields have studied how these events affect long-term health.
A 2014 study from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine found that having a history of ACEs, especially sexual exploitation, was associated with a higher rate of a cancer diagnosis. A 2019 review of 155 studies confirmed the link between ACEs and cancer risk, showing that it’s likely because those with ACEs were more prone to obesity and to problematic alcohol and tobacco use.
There is also increasing evidence of a link between ACEs and other diseases like heart, liver, lung, autoimmune disease, and chronic headaches.
Effect #2: Trauma can be harmful to a person’s relationship with their own sexuality.
Growing up in a safe, caring environment allows a child to learn about their own bodies and sexuality in a healthy, confident way. But not having knowledge of or positive role models for sex and relationships can lead to poor outcomes for young people.
A study of almost 10,000 adults found that the more ACEs they had, the more likely they were to have had a sexually transmitted disease. Only 7 percent of men with no ACEs have ever had an STD, but 39 percent of men with seven ACEs have had an STD. The difference is similarly mind-boggling for women. Women with ACEs have been found to engage in more sexually risky behaviors, such as being up to 2.6 times as likely of having sex where they thought they were exposed to HIV.
When it comes to teen pregnancy, there’s also a linear link. In a large California sample, 16 percent of women with no ACEs became pregnant as teenagers, whereas that percentage rose to 53 percent if she had eight ACEs.
Effect #3: Even a person’s understanding of time and reality can be distorted by complex trauma.
How do you remember the past? Plan for the future? We all have our baggage and our fears but those who have experienced complex trauma literally have holes in the past and future. A large study of over 5,000 men and women found that those with significant complex trauma (ACEs score of 5 or higher) were six times as likely as those without any ACEs to have large gaps in their childhood memories.
When looking towards the future, young people with ACEs see something fuzzy too. Lack of future-oriented thinking is a feature of depression, and researchers have found that this can drive teens with ACEs to engage in delinquent, dangerous behaviours.
Even the present can feel distant to those with complex trauma. The experience of dissociation is sometimes referred to as an “out-of-body experience,” where a person feels as if they have come away from their body. Dissociation can also manifest as insensitivity to pain, loss of muscle control, or even the inability to swallow. Those who have had a significant number of ACEs are more likely to experience dissociation.
Dissociative identity disorder, sometimes known as “multiple personality disorder,” is an extreme and rare form of disassociation that occurs because of childhood trauma. This is when someone cannot maintain one consistent sense of self and seems to involuntarily switch between different identities.
The difficulty of learning new behaviors in adulthood
The challenge associated with overcoming something like childhood trauma in adulthood is our ability to ‘think differently’. Adult brains are often less porous than childhood brains, and it can be challenging to shift perspective and reach a level of acceptance that helps us reduce the consequences associated with trauma.
This is especially true in someone who experienced severe trauma at a young age. Past traumatic events will impede one’s physical, emotional and spiritual sense of sense, and their brain development will likely have been halted or negatively impacted as a result. To learn a new way of looking at the world, then, can be tough.
Understanding Leads to Healing
The knowledge about the long-term and insidious effects of childhood trauma is extremely sad. It may even make you feel hopeless. What can we do to undo the effects of trauma? How can we remedy missed childhoods and uncertain futures?
I believe that knowing the link between ACEs and these long-term symptoms is important. It can help healthcare providers pay more attention to complex trauma in young people, and offer interventions to avoid unhealthy coping behaviours like excessive drinking. It also means that those suffering can form a better sense of why it’s happening to them so that they (and those around them) can view their symptoms with more empathy.
These three major types of consequences from complex trauma are just the tip of the iceberg. Trauma’s fingers reach deep into every part of the body and mind. To learn more, and to find helpful resources for victims and loved ones, check out the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. I also recommend reading The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk. It’s a very readable and compassionate explanation of how the mind, brain, and body are reconstructed by trauma.
Understanding the recovery journey from childhood trauma
The recovery journey isn’t necessarily about eradicating childhood trauma – ultimately, things like sexual abuse and parental neglect can’t ever be ignored or forgotten. Rather, viable treatment options are about understanding the effect that these experiences have had on a person as an adult and learning the tools and tricks to help manage, accept and retake control over negative childhood traumas. That way, the all-too-common side effects can diminish, and a person can live a happier and healthier life.
If you are struggling with the after-effects of trauma, know that you’re not alone. Understand that there’s a valid reason for why you experience what you do, even today. Reach out to your social support system. Not everyone with a high ACEs score will have a difficult adulthood, just as not everyone with low or no ACEs will have an easy one. Remember, ACEs are a tool to assess risk. If you think you’re experiencing the effects of childhood trauma, you should seek guidance from a mental health professional.
To find out more about how childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime, you can watch Nadine Burke Harris, Founder and CEO of Center for Youth Wellness, an initiative seeking to create a clinical model that recognizes and effectively treats toxic stress in children, speak in the TED Talk – LINK
Author – Others and Jade Wu, Ph.D., is a clinical health psychologist and host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast