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  • Writer's pictureJackie Windham

How Childhood Trauma Affects Us as Adults


Childhood. The very word draws up images of innocence, joy, optimism and wonder. Childhood is a time of security – being protected and loved. Having stability in knowing you are protected by your family allows you to form solid and safe relationships later in life. This is the ideal definition and experience of childhood. However, the reality of many children experiences and the effect on the rest of their lives is in stark contrast to this idealized expectation.

Childhood trauma can take many forms

  • Physical or sexual abuse

  • Witnessing a traumatic event

  • Having a severe illness requiring surgery and hospitalization

  • Witnessing domestic violence

  • Experiencing intense bullying

  • Even extreme situations like refugee trauma and experiencing a large-scale natural disaster.

We, as adults, are often unable to process these life events. Imagine the scale and scope through a child’s eyes, trying to process the nuances of these experiences. And trying to understand their role in their occurrence. Children do not filter information through the prism of education, socialization, and life experience as we do. Often times, they blame themselves because they have no other point of reference of why these events occur.


Childhood trauma chips away at a child’s stability and sense of self, undermining self-worth and often staying with the child into adulthood. This trauma can also impact a person into adulthood as they experience feelings of shame and guilt, feeling disconnected and unable to relate to others, trouble controlling emotions, heightened anxiety and depression, anger.

Let’s take the case of complex trauma that occurs directly to the child and disrupts their sense of safety and stability. If a child is abused emotionally, physically or sexually, by someone close to them, often a caregiver, it can condition the way the child forms attachments later in life. They may start to see protectors and caretakers through a different filter, no longer trusting those individuals to keep them safe or even “care about them.” Once a child’s sense of identity is fractured, it takes years of work to rebuild those broken pieces and have them regain trust.


In the case of a child experiencing caretaker or parent abuse, a number of adult attachment disorders can occur. These can include:

  • Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment: This form of attachment results when the caregiver ignores or rejects a child’s need. When that child becomes an adult, they may choose to be ultra-independent in order to protect themselves from being rejected again.

  • Fearful-Avoidant Attachment. When a child experiences and is exposed to abuse and neglect it is natural for some to fear intimacy and close relationships. Now in adulthood, those with fearful avoidant attachment are often distrustful and have a difficult time sharing emotions and may seem disconnected from their partner.

  • Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment: This adult may seem clingy or needy and will often require repeated validation in relationships. They will never entirely feel secure, stemming from a childhood with parents who were not consistent in the emotional security they provide. Loving the child and then rejecting them repeatedly causes the child to continuously question their place and require ongoing validation.


The effects of child trauma are many, and they are nuanced depending on the trauma and the child themselves. If a child comes from a home that does not provide a sense of security and protection for that child, they may resort to developing their own forms of coping mechanisms allowing them to function day-to-day just to survive. They may live on eggshells, having become accustomed to a parent or caretaker lashing out. The result is sensitivity to each interaction and the moods of others, fearful that the individual fly into a rage. These children learn to adapt by withholding their own emotions and making waves. Masking their fear, anger and sadness.

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, strong connections exist between childhood trauma and high-risk behavior such as smoking, having unprotected sex, and experiencing chronic illness such as heart disease and cancer. Individuals who have experienced abuse are likely to experience stress and anxiety later in life. This long-term stress and anxiety can cause physical symptoms as well as emotional issues throughout life.

In short, childhood trauma creates a fractured foundation for the individual for the rest of their lives. The way we are raised and the sense of security it creates (or shatters), all impact the emotional, and sometimes physical path, we take as adults.

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