We are often nostalgic over our childhood for the little responsibilities and worries it imposed on us. But for a lot of people, cherished memories come alongside a dose of discomfort or fear. That’s because childhood trauma is very common and takes various forms.
In fact, 72% of children and adolescents in the U.S. will have experienced at least one major stressful event by the age of 18. It includes physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, witnessing or being a victim of violence, or the loss of a loved one.
According to Florida’s Network of Children’s Advocacy Centers, a significant part of abuse cases are not disclosed. 39% of physical abuse and up to 33% of sexual abuse is kept secret by the victims. Only 8% of cases are addressed in counseling during childhood or adolescence.
63.5% of adults reported being exposed to a form of hostile event/environment before they were 18 years old. But abuse and neglect are not the only types of trauma that a person can experience in their early years.
Read further to better understand what childhood trauma is, what its signs are in adults, and how professional therapy for childhood trauma can help you heal.
What Is a Childhood Trauma?
Childhood trauma is a term that has been used a lot recently, mostly referring to major events or extremely stressful childhood environments. Officially, childhood trauma is a broader term that focuses not only on the adverse environment but on the child's personal experience.
Definition: “Childhood trauma is a complex phenomenon, not only defined by the type of outside incident that causes it, but also by the meaning the child or adolescent affixes to it; how the mental condition is manifest comes directly from the meaning.”
Therefore, any context or event that stressed you on a significant level during childhood or adolescence can be considered childhood trauma. Here are some common examples:
- Having absent parents, physically or emotionally
- Being a victim of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
- Witnessing violence in the household (such as domestic violence or frequent conflict between parents)
- Being bullied at school or online
- Having one or both parents blaming, belittling, threatening, discriminating against, or isolating you
- Being neglected by your caregivers (such as being left alone for a long time or being ignored)
- Witnessing substance abuse (such as having an alcoholic parent)
- Experiencing loss (such as the death of a beloved pet or person, or parents divorcing)
- Being one parent’s confidant (such as your father complaining to you about his conflict with your mom)
- Not being able to go to school because you have to work
Childhood trauma becomes your emotional baggage in adult life and has serious effects on your emotional processing, relationships, and productivity.
How Childhood Trauma Affects Adulthood
The first 6 years of life serve as a framework for most aspects of adult life: physical and mental health, social relationships, intimacy, success, and achievements.
Growing up in stressful family contexts will touch various areas of your life, sometimes unconsciously, without you even realizing it. Symptoms of childhood trauma in adults often involve:
- Anxiety disorders
- Complex PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) symptoms
- Communication difficulties in relationships
- Difficulties focusing
- Low self-esteem, feeling worthless
- Hyper-independence and over-achieving
- Chronic pain or syndromes (such as irritable colon syndrome)
- Unhealthy coping mechanisms (such as smoking, substance abuse, and eating disorders)
- Problems sleeping or relaxing
- Anger management problems and irritability
- Fragmented or no childhood memories
- Dissociation and poor body awareness
- Little to no sense of identity
These feelings and behaviors can be rooted in episodes that you do not consider “bad” or “harmful.” Childhood trauma in adults is present even for those who describe their upbringing as “a normal childhood.” That’s because coping mechanisms have turned the wounds into closed scars.
In reality, a lot of inexplicable medical issues and mental health troubles can be cured only by processing childhood trauma. In-person or online therapy for childhood trauma helps reduce feelings of shame, guilt, and low self-esteem and supports you in building a stronger identity.
Interested in Uncovering Your Scars?Try Online Therapy
How to Heal From Childhood Trauma With Therapy
Having been exposed to childhood trauma doesn’t define your current self-worth or decide your future. Therapy for childhood trauma has proven effective in lessening the burden of adult survivors.
Various types of in-person or online therapy can address dysfunctional patterns and support long-term change for their clients.
CPT therapy for childhood trauma
Cognitive processing therapy (CPT) is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy. It aims to change internalized unhealthy beliefs related to childhood trauma and their corresponding harmful behaviors in daily life. It’s highly recommended in cases of PTSD and major traumatic events.
CPT is generally done in 12 sessions and includes exposure therapy. A study conducted at the University of Leiden stated that different types of exposure therapy decreased childhood trauma symptoms in adults in 70% of cases.
One of the CPT techniques is the following: you write down why you consider the traumatic event happened to you and not anybody else. With the therapist, you’ll identify unhelpful beliefs about yourself and the world. You’ll highlight them and then reframe the sentences into a newer, healthier perspective.
In CPT, you’ll have to complete between-sessions homework. One example of a task can be to write down the story and feelings attached to your worst childhood trauma experience, which you’ll read out loud in the next session.
CPT is efficient for breaking patterns of avoidance, self-harm, and unhealthy coping mechanisms. It challenges dysfunctional beliefs and helps you rationalize your situation.
EMDR for childhood trauma
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a form of therapy that combines traditional techniques, such as imaginative exposure and personal resources identification, with visual stimulation and active listening.
This therapy involves hand movements from your therapists that promote desensitization and reprocessing at the neurological level. EMDR therapy for childhood trauma has been proven to have a long-lasting effect on reducing anxiety and depression in survivors of traumatic events.
EMDR includes exposure to traumatic moments through mental images, feelings, thoughts, and inner experiences. It allows the client to control the amount and time of exposure, too, in order for them to feel safe to explore.
The visual stimulation component of EMDR stimulates emotional and mental processing even without verbalization, which can feel easier to do for adults who have experienced childhood trauma.
Art Therapy for Childhood Trauma
Art therapy is a form of intervention for childhood trauma survivors that don’t involve direct exposure to traumatic events. It is focused on reducing inner conflict, soothing emotional pain, and promoting self-awareness.
In art therapy sessions, you’ll use images, media, and symbols to recreate your experience and reprocess it based on free-flow or the therapist’s questions and directions. Art therapy involves projection on cards (such as Dixit game cards), painting, drawing, coloring, and sketching.
Art therapy for childhood trauma provides a nonverbal means to express painful memories. It was also shown to reduce stress, provide psychological safety, and encourage accessing and processing the traumatic narrative.
It is highly recommended for adults, children, and adolescents wondering how to heal from childhood trauma in a more subtle and gentle way.
Can Online Therapy Help?
Living through a hard childhood can leave you vulnerable or give you hard skin to protect yourself. Starting counseling or therapy for childhood trauma can help you heal long-term, have better relationships, gain confidence, and start living a life that’s totally your choice.
Today, professional help is easier to access. Online therapy has several advantages that can make healing childhood trauma more accessible:
- It’s more affordable
- It isn’t limited to the therapists in your area
- Flexible schedule
- Accessible from anywhere
- No need to travel to the therapist’s office
Online therapy works on reversing childhood trauma effects too. Research states that online therapy has already improved the socio-emotional life of adult survivors of childhood trauma and increased self-awareness, stress management skills, and relationship quality.
Childhood trauma is common among adolescents and adults nowadays, and it is not limited to singular major events. It can also mean being raised in an unorganized family environment or being bullied in school.
In adulthood, some of your automatic behaviors or thoughts can be clues to a stressful personal history. Childhood trauma is often responsible for anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, hyper-independence, or physical issues.
If you’ve experienced a form of abuse or prolonged stress as a child, in-person and online therapy can help you reduce the symptoms of childhood trauma in adults. Starting therapy online could make your processing more comfortable: sessions from home, lower price, and more therapist options.
At DoMental, you can schedule online sessions, chat with your therapist, and send audio messages, all at reasonable weekly pricing.