Childhood Trauma: Causes, Signs & How You Can Move Beyond It

Childhood Trauma is an event, episode or environment that you experienced as a child that left you feeling vulnerable, unsafe, was emotionally painful, distressing and has caused lasting psychological, emotional and physiological dysregulation.

Was my experience in childhood so bad Helen, to be called traumatic?” It is one of the most common questions I am asked when people  have started their therapeutic healing journey with me and we explore safely the impact of the experiences they have had in childhood.

It’s important to break any misconceptions that childhood trauma only involves physical danger and harm.

A normal part of child development is in experiencing difficult situations and learning to cope with them, this stands you in good stead for managing situations and relationships into adulthood. However an event, repeated events, episode or environment that left you as a child fearing for your safety, can result in childhood trauma.

24 years ago I began guiding children and young people who had experienced trauma and abuse in many different forms, on their healing journey. They were in foster care and/or transitioning to adoptive placements or being supported to return to their family. Exploring experiences with children and helping them find safe ways in which to tell their story, express their emotions, self regulate and feel safe in the developing relationship with foster carers/adoptive parents/parents was a huge but rewarding challenge. Those were the children who had found safety.

There are many many children who I have now met as adults who didn’t have a voice, their voice wasn’t heard, they had to adapt to ways of self regulation and create internal forms of ‘safety’ in order to survive. I see these women in the therapy space with me now as I guide them on their healing journey to rise above trauma and become woman embodying liberation from the pain of the past and patterns of survival.

Their question is often “was my experience as a child so bad as to be called trauma?” The answer is all too often, yes and with them I dispel the myth that childhood trauma only involves physical danger or harm.

What Are The Main Causes Of Childhood Trauma?

Experiences are traumatic because they are unwanted, unexpected and you are powerless to stop them. Anything that as a child left you feeling alone, vulnerable, overwhelmed or terrified, is traumatic. Psychological trauma occurs not over the ‘facts’ of ‘what really happened’, but because of an individual’s personal experience and perspective of what happened to them. This explains why different people, both children and adults, can experience the same event and have very different reactions and responses. Some may be ‘relatively’ unaffected while others can develop long term, debilitating trauma responses, PTSD and CPTSD

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACEs) conducted during the mid 1990’s continues to inform research and therapy for childhood trauma to this day and identifies 10 of the most traumatic events or experiences a child can encounter:

  • Living with emotional neglect; parents failing to respond enough or appropriately to your needs as a child, consequently there is little to no emotional acknowledgement, support or validation
  • Living with/growing up with physical neglect; not clothed or fed adequately, or kept warm.
  • The loss of your parent or primary caregiver due to death, divorce or abandonment
  • Experiencing sexual abuse as a child; from parents, family, adults, other children or any one in a position of authority or power over you as a child.
  • Emotional Abuse; your parents being emotionally unavailable to you as a child or you being continuously demeaned or verbally abused as a child.
  • Experiencing physical abuse either in your home or outside of your home by someone in an authority figure
  • Witnessing domestic abuse or violence between your parents as a child. Children are now also considered victims of domestic abuse or violence in their own right if they witness the abuse or violence in any way.
  • Growing up in a home with a parent who has a significant mental health condition such as schizophrenia
  • Growing up in a home in which the main parent or caregiver goes to prison
  • Growing up with a parent or caregiver who is an addict or who is a chronic abuser of alcohol or drugs.

The list actually isn’t exhaustive and doesn’t include

The Less ‘Obvious’ Causes of Childhood Trauma

There are other less obvious or talked about experiences in childhood that can be just as traumatic, debilitating and have long standing emotional, psychological and physiological effects into adulthood.

  • Being bullied or humiliated at school
  • Being constantly shamed by a parent or caregiver
  • Being a carer for your parent
  • Being a carer for your younger siblings
  • Going through an operation
  • The loss of a sibling
  • A sibling being ill over a long period of time
  • living in poverty

I’ve already mentioned sexual abuse, however there are many forms of sexual abuse that are often overlooked but any form of inappropriate sexualised behaviour can have long lasting negative effects; constant inappropriate sexualised observations, comments or gestures about your body by a parent or adult for example. 

We also mustn’t leave out children who have lived through natural disasters or war. 

There are a great deal of circumstances where there is crossover of these traumatic experiences i.e. as a child you may have experienced more than one of these events/experiences/episodes over a sustained period of time.

I have heard statements from people over the years that ‘children are resilient’ they will ‘bounce back’ or they won’t have understood what was happening because they were “too young to be affected by it”. Firstly, resilience isn’t about bouncing back (but that’s a separate blog coming up!) and as children we understand danger and discord and it is those two things which cause trauma. Your brain as a child is more vulnerable than that of an adults. Trauma affects the growth of the brain cortex which then affects learning, behaviour and health including memory, attention and your capacity to regulate emotions and stress responses.

In fact you can be more affected by trauma as a child than adults as you can sense danger but  are not  able to ‘explain’ it to yourself like an adult, meaning you feel more terrified and vulnerable. 

I have had so many women tell me that they have been stuck in not being able to find the words to express what they’ve experienced as a child or how it has been affecting them in multifaceted ways throughout their adult life. One of the most beautiful ways I have worked with children to be able to express themselves is through puppet play accompanied by a playful, accepting, curious and empathic approach which I continue to integrate into my relationships with women who’ve experienced childhood trauma and have found the safety in the relationship with me to begin to express it. The puppets are also available to the adults with me too!

Even with all that said you may be asking yourself…

Did I really suffer from Childhood Trauma and what ‘symptoms’ would I have?

I’ll ask you first to get rid of the notion of ‘symptoms’ and I’d invite you to think about it them as signs & signals, of how those experiences have shown up for you in your mind, body and emotions and how they are affecting your day to day life. Symptoms sounds as though there’s a tick box but trauma is unique to you and how it has affected you is unique to you. I have worked with many adults and children over the years who have experienced the same/similar traumatic event but have vastly different ways of how this has affected them, even in sibling groups where here has been neglect & abuse.

Because not everyone reacts to trauma in the same way.

Some people remember all details of what happened, many blank everything entirely from their mind and lose all memory of the experience. Some people develop many signs from childhood onwards, and others have no signs of trauma but then suddenly, as an adult, something triggers them (this doesn’t mean the trauma has been dormant but that the expression of it has been delayed).

There are some general signs to be mindful of in the context of your experiences, they’re not exhaustive and not limited to

  • Difficulties managing stress & regulating your stress response
  • high and low mood swings
  • responses to situations that seem out of proportion or context to the situation itself
  • a deep sense of danger and the world being an unsafe place
  • feeling disconnected from yourself and the relationships around you
  • mistrust of other people, even those you feel closest to
  • unable to sustain relationships
  • a sense of loneliness and isolation
  • Feeling numb and like you are watching yourself rather than living as yourself – a going through the motions experience with no satisfaction
  • Difficulties with attention and concentration
  • Being on edge all the time and easily startled
  • high levels of fear and anxiety
  • Illnesses such a chronic fatigue, IBS and unexplained aches and pains
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Nightmares with repetitive themes
  • Flashbacks or flashing memories
  • A deep sense of loss
  • Addictive behaviours
  • Repressed anger
  • Disordered eating
  • Low self esteem
  • Poor self image
  • Difficulties in self expression
  • Passive or subservient behaviours
  • Neglecting ones own needs
  • suicidal thoughts/actions (If you know someone who is experiencing suicidal thoughts/actions, help is available. The National Suicide Prevention Helpline UK can be reached on 0800 689 5652 or if there is an immediate risk Dial 999).

Reading about the effects of childhood trauma into adulthood can be quite unsettling as an adult. However, if you’ve experienced childhood trauma do not be discouraged or lose hope. The past is a place of reference, not a place of residence. There is always room for healing and recovery, you are not defined by those experiences and you have the capacity to be able to both create a safer for you and discover a you that is calm, confident, courageous, compassionate, self accepting and empowered.

Where Do You Begin To Move Through Childhood Trauma and Recover?

Know that it was not your fault. What happened to you was outside of your control. Remember that.

Don’t try to rationalise your trauma. It’s not uncommon to try and make sense of the trauma inflicted throughout your childhood. However, there is absolutely nothing that can justify child abuse/neglect/trauma so don’t strain yourself trying to rationalise it. Instead, focus on healing and the wish to create a safer relationship with yourself and your future.

Avoid Self Blame & Respond to Shame. Recognising you experienced a trauma can cause many emotions to rise up, especially shame which underpins self blame and anger at recognising what has happened to you. It can be tempting in that anger to contact family members or anyone involved in what you’ve experienced. I would advise against doing this until you have been able to process your experiences, develop internal boundaries and make a decision in your best interests. In shame we can go into ‘avoidance’ and internalise the experience wanting to make it go away. It is at this time I would say Reach out and connect. 

You are in control of the here and now and how you move forward. What is in your control now is the ability to take steps to help yourself and move forward.

Childhood Trauma does not dissolve or magically disappear with time or age. Nor does it disappear through professional achievements or success. However the effects of childhood trauma do respond to focussed attention and support. This comes from you and the guidance through therapy of responding to yourself, your needs; your wounded inner child, with love, dignity, respect and compassion.

Self education can be hugely empowering in brining a sense of relief that you’re not alone in your experiences. There are lots of books available in helping you begin to explore your experience. Here are some I can recommend for you today.

The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk

The Deepest Well by Dr Nadine Burke Harris one of the best books about adverse childhood experiences for people who have gone through these experiences and want to understand how it is affecting their present.

Complex PTSD FRom Surviving to Thriving By Pete Walker.  is a “practical guide to recovering from lingering childhood trauma”. It shares stories from both the author and his clients about their journeys to recovery and leading a full life.

Trauma Psychotherapy with a clinically qualified trained professional can guide you in a safe relationship to explore the effects of your experiences on your mind, emotions and body. Through that relationship you develop alternative responses that bring you emotional and psychological security and regulation, and liberate you from the pain of the past so you define and embody your SELF for the future. It can be hard to know what you need in a therapist versus a trauma informed coach so I’ve created more information on this for you to read hereTrauma Therapist Versus Trauma Informed Coach: What’s the Difference

Whatever your experiences know that there is hope and you can recover. Childhood trauma can negatively impact the rest of your life, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You can heal. As an adult, you now hold the power to change your life. Take the first step

Meet the author

Hey I’m Helen and as an Integrative Trauma Therapist I’ve been guiding children and adults on their recovery and healing journey from Childhood, Complex Trauma/ C-PTSD and sexual abuse for 24 years. Along with my clinically qualified Psychotherapy expertise, I have a range of clinical expertise & training in the Neuroscience of Childhood Trauma, Attachment therapy, Internal Family Systems, Somatic Experiencing, EMDR, CBT & Solution Focused Therapy, Sexual Abuse Recovery, Inner Child Healing, Bio-Energetic Therapy, Narrative Story Stem Assessment. I am also an embodiment of my own recovery from trauma and love to share my calm, compassionate, courageous, self accepting self in the therapeutic relationships with with anyone on their healing journey as a source of hope and inspiration.

Sign up for my Newsletter in which I share information, education, advice and other interesting facts and sources of information relating to trauma, complex PTSD, recovery and healing.

You can also follow me on Facebook or Instagram

I’d love to know what information has really struck you in this article so please feel free to send me a note on Facebook or Instagram or if you sign up to my newsletter you can always hit ‘reply’.

With love & compassion