Understanding Childhood Trauma – Lifetime Of Consequences

young girl with hands over eyes


In an ideal world, every child is loved, nurtured, protected and educated. In reality, though, life is nowhere near perfect. It is often complicated, scary and even dangerous. Unfortunately, childhood trauma is commonplace, affecting more than two thirds of children in the U.S. who will experience some form of trauma, often repeatedly, by their teenage years.

  • “We know that being exposed to high doses of childhood adversity dramatically increases the risk for seven of the 10 leading causes of death in the United States,” Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician and author of The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-term Effects of Childhood Adversity, told the New York Times.

From lifelong mental health issues to battles with addiction, a greater likelihood of ending up in the criminal justice system and even being at a higher risk for heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the toxic effects of childhood trauma can create a lifetime of struggle.

What is Childhood Trauma?

Understanding these issues means recognizing the range of traumatic events and trauma types that can impact young, developing minds and bodies. Any incident that a child experiences, or even witnesses, in which they feel deeply threatened is considered a traumatic event.

Some of the more common types of childhood trauma can include:

  • Physical or sexual abuse or assault, in or outside the home
  • Neglect
  • Commercial sexual exploitation
  • Unwilling separation from family members
  • Domestic, school or community violence
  • Natural disasters or acts of terrorism
  • Fleeing war or violence as a refugee
  • Unexpected or violent loss of a loved one
  • Life-threatening illness or tragic accidents

Though these are broad-stroke categories, it’s important remember that children face many, many different challenges. Outside the home, physical bullying or cyberbullying can cause trauma, as well as growing up with a parent or sibling suffering from mental illness or substance abuse.

In the words of Dr. Robert Block, former President of the American  Academy of Pediatrics;

  • “Adverse childhood experiences are the single, greatest, unaddressed, public health threat facing our nation today.”

Every adolescent and young person will process traumatic events in their own way. Much of a child’s ability to identify trauma, cope with it and handle it in the long-term depends on the level of care and support they receive from the adults in their lives. It’s easy to see how problematic this can be when, as is often the case, the adults in their life are the cause of the trauma.

A number of factors make it extremely difficult to quantify exactly how many children experience trauma each year. First, the vast majority of childhood trauma goes unrecognized or is unreported.

  • Additionally, children growing up in abusive households or other extremely stressful situations are likely to think their life is normal, even though they may experience repeated trauma.
  • It is not an understatement to say that each year millions of children and adolescents in the U.S. are subjected to different forms of trauma.

A survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), provides a small glimpse into the problem of childhood trauma and its prevalence:

  • Nearly 700,000 children in 2015, about 9.2 victims per 1,000 kids, suffered some form of child abuse or neglect
  • Annually, the number of children admitted to the hospital for treatment of assault-related injuries could fill every seat in 9 stadiums
  • About 12 percent of physically ill children and 19 percent of those who are physically injured will deal with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Over half of all families in the U.S. have been affected by some type of disaster

During periods of trauma or toxic stress, the body actually has a chemical response. It creates high levels of cortisol, sometimes called the “stress hormone,” and adrenaline that can trigger the “fight or flight” syndrome.

  • In a normal situation, this is a healthy response to fear, but over the long-term, it is known to cause problems, especially in children.

“Our biological stress response is designed to save our lives,” Dr. Harris said in her interview with the New York Times. “The problem is that when the stress response is activated repeatedly it can become overactive and affect our brain development, our immune systems and even how our DNA is read and transcribed.”

In small children, signs of trauma can range from trouble sleeping to having nightmares, seem overly fearful of being physically separated from a parent or frequently scream and cry.

As children age into preteens and adolescents, signs of trauma may appear as some of the following:

  • Depression, anxiety and feeling isolated
  • Self-harming
  • Eating disorders or risky sexual behavior
  • Learning disorders, poor grades and higher rates of suspension and expulsions from school

This is also when many teenagers coping with childhood trauma begin to experiment with alcohol and drugs.

When young victims of toxic stress grow to be adults, the consequences of untreated trauma become even more serious, in large part because society is not geared toward helping adults overcome traumatic events rooted in childhood.

Employers, health care institutions and the criminal justice system are rarely set up to deal with or are even convinced that a person’s behavior, physical wellbeing or mental health is related to their childhood.

In adults, childhood trauma can very often be connected to issues that include:

  • Greater likelihood of interaction with the criminal justice system
  • Higher rates of untreated mental health problems
  • An increased use of mental health services
  • Serious risk of long-term chronic illnesses, such as heart disease and diabetes

Along with all of these issues comes a likelihood that an inordinate amount of people that suffered childhood trauma will later struggle with substance abuse and addiction.

There is an incredibly strong link between early-life trauma and addiction to drugs or alcohol. This is especially true among those who have never been treated for the trauma they experienced or, for that matter, even identify an event as traumatic.
Among adults that do eventually seek treatment for an alcohol use disorder or other substance abuse, the data is somewhat staggering as it relates to childhood trauma.

Research has shown that around 62 percent of women and men receiving addiction recovery treatment report that they were victims of physical or sexual abuse as children. More than 50 percent of those in treatment for addiction meet the criteria for PTSD that developed before their substance use disorder.

Though addiction is a treatable disease, underlying mental health issues that result from childhood trauma must be addressed in order for a lasting and productive recovery.

Though it’s impossible to create a perfect world, one in which children are never the victims of trauma, it is crucial for parents, caregivers, teachers, health care and social workers to identify and address trauma in children. As complicated as the problem is, greater compassion for adults coping with past trauma will also create an opportunity for more people to come forward and get the help they deserve.

child holding face in her hands