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Childhood Trauma in Adults: What Are the Signs?

Many adults have experienced some form of childhood trauma, yet it is often still treated like a hushed topic. The difficult nature of the subject can make those involved in the discussion uncomfortable — even those who have suffered from childhood trauma may pull back from exposing more on the issue.

It can be upsetting to realize that you may have experienced trauma as a child, though it may explain some of the behaviors you have in adulthood. Let’s explore trauma in childhood with 1AND1.

What Causes Childhood Trauma?

Childhood trauma is not always caused by outwardly obvious, catastrophic events. It’s important to note a few things; no singular cause of the trauma is “worse” than the other. All causes are valid, and each person deals with trauma differently. Even if two people experience similar situations, the impact on that person’s life and how they cope will vary. 

 In general, the most common causes of childhood trauma include but are not limited to:

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Psychological abuse
  • Exposure to domestic violence
  • Subjection to a traumatic event such as a house fire, natural disaster, terrorism,
  • Separation or abandonment from loved ones
  • Refugee or war experience
  • Bullying or harassment

What Behavior Changes Can Result From Childhood Trauma?

Trauma of any kind can leave deep-rooted issues and effects that start as a child and bleed into adulthood if it is not addressed. In children, these types of events typically spur a behavior change of some kind. 

Some of the more common behavior changes expressed by traumatized children include:

  • New fears or anxieties
  • Separation anxiety
  • Changes in sleep patterns 
  • Mood shifts, such as an increase in sadness or anger
  • Decreased interest in normal activities
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Difficulty learning
  • Overall increased stress
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, or fatigue

These changes are evidence that the children are not processing or coping with whatever they may have experienced. Some children may be able to heal after such experiences, but most do not. If their trauma is not appropriately processed, they develop post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly shortened to PTSD. 

These experiences can disrupt how the child’s brain would have matured. As a result, children’s perceptions of the world and other experiences are altered. For example, some children are hypervigilant and anxious after a traumatic experience because they are always on edge as if expecting another trauma. As these children grow and age into adulthood, their unhealed PTSD formed from these traumatic events shows itself in different ways. 

What Are the Signs of Childhood Trauma in Adults?

Unresolved childhood trauma manifests in unconscious and conscious ways. Potentially, you may be aware that your childhood involved trauma, but there are situations where you may be unaware that what you experienced was trauma.

In some cases, the memory of the trauma is too painful that your brain blocks it out, so you don’t remember it. Regardless, the symptoms of the trauma can still pop up. 

Remember that in these circumstances, not everyone will have the same symptoms, nor will they always identically present the same symptoms. It’s important to seek licensed medical attention if you are concerned about any symptoms you may be experiencing.

Symptoms of Childhood Trauma

Childhood trauma can manifest in many different ways, even in adulthood. Some emotional and mental symptoms of childhood trauma in adults can include:

  • Inability to control or regulate emotions
  • Heightened response to stress
  • Mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, dissociation, PTSD
  • Memory changes
  • Learning difficulties
  • Self-esteem issues
  • Overwhelming guilt
  • Suicidal ideation 

On the other hand, physical manifestations of trauma may also take place. These may have seemingly no explanation but can be long-lasting and may interfere with daily activities. 

Physical symptoms of trauma can look like this:

  • Sleeping struggles
  • High blood pressure
  • GI issues
  • Weakened immune system, which may present as a frequent illness

Effects on Work and Education 

In your work or educational life, it may be difficult for you to pay attention or keep focus. You also may have trouble trusting other people, whether that is coworkers, classmates, or superiors. 

You may struggle with authority, whether that is defying them or having no boundaries with them. For example, if you have no boundaries and are asked to do something, you may comply even if you truly don’t want to or don’t have the bandwidth — this may be due to fear of conflict or a deep need to people-please.

Even more so, you may remain at a job or in a college major you dislike because you worry you won’t be able to be successful doing something different. Communication can be affected, too, because you’re unable to control your emotions in a disagreement or argument. 

In other people’s eyes, you may overreact to a situation, but in the traumatized mind, an overreaction is often a form of protection that was learned from past traumatic events. This can escalate quickly in some situations, which, of course, can be problematic for a professional setting.

Additionally, you may be absent a lot due to mental illness, even with the lack of sick days you may have. On the opposite side of the spectrum, you may go to work even when sick or burnt out due to feeling overwhelming guilt. 

Effects on Social Life

If you’ve been affected by childhood trauma, you may find you have a lot of difficulties connecting with others. Potentially, you may experience paranoia that you will be hurt at any moment due to your past trauma, and you may experience anxiety as a result. 

If social anxiety is present, you may have trouble following conversations or may get overstimulated easily in a conversation. Avoidance of social activities, certain places, or certain types of people is common as well. 

Effects on Relationships

How children have learned how to have relationships has been changed due to the traumatic event(s) experienced. It is known that the relationship between a child and a caregiver sets the standard reaction to future relationships. 

When something like trauma occurs, it can change the child’s attachment style. Currently, there are four styles of attachment; secure, anxious or anxious-preoccupied, dismissive, and fearful-avoidant:

  • A secure attachment style is trusting, open, and intimate. If you have this attachment style, you are independent in a relationship and can articulate your needs easily.
  • If you have an anxious or anxious-preoccupied attachment style, you typically have low self-esteem and fear of abandonment. You often need validation and may not feel loved despite being told so. You may become dependent on the other person in the relationship.
  •  Dismissive attachment style often fears showing emotion or being vulnerable. You are untrusting of others and come across as aloof. You don’t allow people to make a close connection with you. You may not be able to provide support to others in a relationship. 
  • Fearful-avoidant attachment style needs a lot of attention and love but also avoids the vulnerable nature of showing true emotions. You may avoid getting close to others but feel anxious that you won’t receive that connection. 

These are unconscious styles of attachment, and they are generally a result of a situation you were placed in as a child. Figuring out your attachment style may be helpful in explaining some of your behaviors and allow you to realize in what ways you want to work on yourself. 

How Can You Heal From Childhood Trauma?

It can be heartbreaking to realize that your childhood may have had a huge negative effect on you as an adult. However, there are ways to help begin the journey to healing, with therapy being the main treatment method. 

There are a few different types of therapies that are most often used: 

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy is a treatment that takes place over months with a therapist that will help identify and change negative behavioral patterns and thinking processes through discussion. 
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy treatment is a process you go through with a therapist that aids in your ability to understand and accept feelings. They will teach ways to manage emotions and stress, which can improve relationships. 
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy help heal from distressing emotions and experiences with eye movement. The goal is to change thoughts or feelings about the trauma rather than discuss details.

A mental health professional will be able to make a plan with you to figure out the best therapy method for your specific situation. 

Check out our guide to maintaining wellness after trauma for some tips that you can use in conjunction with therapy during your healing process. Regardless of causes or symptoms, if you are struggling in any manner, seek out a licensed professional who can point you in the right direction. 

Remember that you are never alone, and having a strong support system is largely helpful during the transition to healing. 

Dealing With Childhood Trauma

No one wants to think about young children experiencing traumatic events. Unfortunately, it happens too often, and it’s important to know how that can negatively affect your adult life. The strength you’ve needed to continue life, having gone through childhood trauma, is immeasurable. 

Allow yourself to feel that strength and use it to push onward to the processing and resolution of childhood trauma so you no longer have to feel the effects of it on your adult life. 


Adult Survivors | Royal Australian College of General Practitioners

Childhood Trauma | International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Different approaches to psychotherapy | APA