Childhood trauma can cause depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, and more. Trauma’s effects can continue influencing a person’s feelings, health, and behaviors as an adult.

Adverse or distressing events during childhood, such as experiencing or witnessing abuse or suddenly losing a loved one, can lead to childhood trauma.

Trauma that occurs during childhood can continue to influence a person’s feelings and behaviors as an adult. However, interventions such as psychotherapy can help someone heal from and manage the effects of childhood trauma.

This article explains childhood trauma, how it affects children, symptoms of childhood trauma in adults, and how to heal.

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Childhood trauma can occur when a child witnesses or experiences an adverse event that makes them feel threatened, unsafe, or unable to cope.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), over two-thirds of children experience at least one traumatic event by age 16 years.

The following events can cause childhood trauma:

  • physical, sexual, or psychological abuse
  • neglect
  • sudden or violent loss of a loved one
  • a natural disaster, such as a hurricane
  • a large-scale act of violence, such as an act of terrorism or school violence
  • serious or life threatening accidents or illnesses
  • war and refugee experiences
  • stressors related to being part of a military family, such as parental deployment or injury
  • commercial sexual exploitation

The effects of trauma can affect many areas of a child’s life. These include:

  • Physical health: Children may experience heightened physical stress responses and physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomachaches.
  • Mental health: A 2021 review of studies associates childhood trauma with mental health conditions in adulthood, including bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, and psychosis.
  • Cognitive abilities: Childhood trauma may affect emotional and mental processes in the brain. Children may have difficulty problem-solving, planning, learning new information, and reasoning effectively.
  • Self-esteem: Childhood trauma can lead to a sense of worthlessness, shame, and guilt in children. Children may blame themselves for the trauma or feel powerless and helpless.
  • Emotional regulation: Children who experience trauma may have difficulty managing their emotions. They may be overwhelmed by feelings of fear and anxiety.
  • Relationships: Childhood trauma can affect a child’s ability to form attachments to caregivers, authority figures, and friends.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, 3–15% of girls and 1–6% of boys develop PTSD following a traumatic childhood event.

A child with PTSD may experience symptoms such as:

  • intense fear and sadness
  • persistently reliving the event or acting it out through play
  • feeling very upset when something triggers memories of the trauma
  • becoming withdrawn
  • feeling hopeless and helpless
  • difficulty sleeping and having nightmares
  • avoiding people or places linked to the trauma
  • irritability and outbursts of anger
  • startling easily
  • constant vigilance for threats
  • numbness
  • denying that the traumatic event took place

Does age matter?

SAMHSA suggests children may respond differently to trauma depending on their age:

  • Preschool children: Trauma may cause crying, screaming, nightmares, poor eating habits, and fear of separation from a caregiver in very young children.
  • Young children: Elementary school-aged children may experience fear, anxiety, guilt, and difficulty sleeping or concentrating in response to trauma.
  • Adolescents: Teenagers who experience trauma may develop depression, feelings of isolation, self-harming behaviors, and eating disorders. They may misuse alcohol and drugs.

Childhood trauma can have ongoing, sometimes lifelong effects. Affected adults may experience the following potential effects of childhood trauma.

Physical health

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adverse childhood experiences can affect the immune system. These events may increase the risk of certain chronic health conditions, including diabetes and heart disease.

A 2019 review of studies found that people who experienced childhood trauma had a higher risk of the following health conditions in adulthood:

Mental health

People who experience childhood trauma may have a higher risk of serious mental health conditions as adults, including:

  • depression
  • PTSD
  • psychotic disorders
  • anger issues

According to the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS), 1 in 3 newly diagnosed mental health conditions in adults are directly linked to adverse experiences in childhood.


Adverse experiences in childhood may cause toxic stress, which can affect a person’s ability to form healthy, stable relationships.

A 2017 study involving newlywed couples suggests that people who experienced abuse in childhood were less likely to feel satisfied in relationships, even as newlyweds, regardless of their partner’s characteristics and behaviors.

Substance misuse

Childhood trauma may lead to substance misuse in teenagers and adults. People who experience abuse or trauma in childhood may use alcohol and drugs as a coping method. This can lead to substance use disorders, including addiction.

Help is available

Seeking help for addiction may feel daunting or even scary, but several organizations can provide support.

If you believe that you or someone close to you is showing signs of addiction, you can contact the following organizations for immediate help and advice:

Was this helpful?

Support is available for adults who experienced trauma in childhood. Treatments and management strategies for adults who experienced childhood trauma include:

  • Psychotherapy: Talk therapy, such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can help change how a person understands their thoughts, abilities, and behaviors and develop healthy ways to cope with the lasting effects of traumatic events.
  • Support: Spending time with friends, loved ones, or support groups can help a person feel less isolated and help them manage the effects of childhood trauma.
  • Stress reduction: Mindfulness, exercise, or other stress-reducing strategies and activities can improve a person’s mood and promote emotional regulation.
  • A healthy routine: Maintaining a schedule for eating, sleeping, exercise, and other activities can help a person cope and feel less overwhelmed.

Helping children who have experienced trauma

Children who experience trauma can also benefit from psychotherapy. Types of therapy may include CBT, family therapy, and play therapy.

If the trauma causes other mental health conditions, such as PTSD, a doctor may prescribe medication to help manage symptoms.

Adults can help a child who has experienced a traumatic event by helping them feel safe and cared for. This may involve:

  • allowing the child to cry and express their sadness
  • helping them express their feelings through talking, writing, or drawing
  • ensuring they are safe
  • meeting their basic needs
  • maintaining routines, such as mealtimes and bedtime stories
  • limiting their exposure to reminders, such as news reports of the traumatic event
  • helping them maintain a feeling of control by letting them make some decisions, such as what to wear
  • providing a night-light or allowing them to sleep in the room with a caregiver for a short period if they are having trouble sleeping
  • only discussing feelings when the child is ready to do so

The National Institute of Mental Health suggests contacting a healthcare professional if a child who has experienced trauma has symptoms such as:

  • depression
  • emotional numbness
  • flashbacks
  • obvious signs of stress

Adults who experience the physical or mental effects of childhood trauma can also speak with a doctor to receive help and treatment.

This may involve treating any physical health conditions and finding a mental health professional to help them overcome emotional difficulties and manage mental health conditions.

Childhood trauma may occur after an adverse event makes a child feel unsafe or unable to cope. Trauma can impair a child’s emotional and cognitive abilities and disrupt their academic and social development.

Adults who experienced childhood trauma may have a higher risk of mental health conditions and certain physical health conditions. They may also have difficulty maintaining relationships with others.

It is never too late for a person to receive help for childhood trauma. Psychotherapy and other interventions can help adults and children cope and heal.