What does childhood trauma cause later in life?

Childhood trauma can have profound effects that last well into adulthood. Trauma during childhood primes the brain to be in a constant state of alert, making children who experience trauma more likely to develop mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Childhood trauma also affects things like relationships, physical health, substance abuse, and one’s sense of self. Understanding the potential consequences of early trauma makes it especially important to identify and treat at-risk children as early as possible.

What is childhood trauma?

Childhood trauma describes frightening, dangerous, violent, or neglectful events that happen to a child under 18 years old. This includes all types of abuse – physical, emotional, and sexual – as well as experiences like living with a family member’s mental illness, substance abuse, divorce, death of a parent or sibling, natural disasters, accidents, violence, or war. The effects of trauma depend on the child’s age, personality and support systems, and the type and frequency of traumatic events. The more adverse experiences a child endures, the higher their risk of long-term effects.

How common is childhood trauma?

Unfortunately, trauma in childhood is very common. In fact, studies estimate that 25-61% of children experience at least one traumatic event before age 16. Physical abuse affects around 1 in 20 children, while neglect affects 1 in 10. Sexual abuse impacts around 1 in 20 girls and 1 in 100 boys under age 18. At least 1 in 7 children have lived with a parent who had mental illness or alcohol/drug dependence during their childhood. Witnessing or experiencing violence in the community is also disturbingly common, with an estimated 38-70% of children having this experience. Living through natural disasters, accidents, or war can additionally result in trauma. It’s clear childhood trauma in its many forms impacts a significant portion of the population.

Why is childhood trauma so impactful?

Trauma during childhood has such widespread consequences because it affects a child during critical periods of brain development. A child’s brain develops rapidly in the first few years of life, with 700-1000 new neural connections forming every single second. Early traumatic experiences literally change the structure and functioning of the developing brain. Key brain areas involved in learning, memory, regulating emotions, and responding to threats show particular impacts from early trauma. In addition, childhood trauma can cause chemical changes in the brain and body that make effects persist, even into adulthood. Basically, trauma during childhood developmentally primes the brain to be in a constant state of alertness for threats. This makes children who have experienced trauma disproportionately likely to struggle with mental and physical health later in life.

Mental health effects

Childhood trauma raises the risk for developing a variety of mental health issues, with the risk increasing alongside the number of adverse experiences.


Having childhood trauma makes someone 2-5 times more likely to deal with severe anxiety well into adulthood. Rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are also higher in traumatized children. Up to 1 in 4 traumatized children develop PTSD compared to around 4% of the general population.


Childhood trauma similarly raises adult risks for clinical depression. Around 30% of adults abused as children struggle with major depressive disorder versus just 10% of adults without abuse history.


Suicidal thoughts and behaviors occur at higher rates among traumatized children. Those with adverse childhood experiences have up to 5 times the risk of attempting suicide later in life.

Substance abuse

Using drugs or alcohol to cope with difficult feelings is more common in individuals abused as children. Up to two-thirds of people with childhood trauma histories develop alcoholism or drug abuse problems.

Eating disorders

Traumatized children have an elevated risk of developing disordered eating habits like anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder as adults. Sexual abuse and bullying specifically increase eating disorder risks.

Personality disorders

Around 1 in 10 people abused as children develop borderline personality disorder as adults. Rates of other personality disorders like schizotypal, paranoid, and antisocial personality disorders also increase with childhood trauma.


Childhood trauma has been linked to higher rates of psychotic symptoms like hallucinations and delusions. Abused children have been found to have a 2-3 fold increased risk of developing schizophrenia specifically later in life.

Relationship effects

Traumatized children often struggle to form secure relationships in adulthood. This can negatively impact their relationships in multiple spheres of life.

Romantic relationships

Adults abused as children face higher risks of conflict and dissatisfaction in romantic partnerships. They are more likely to end up divorced; up to 80% of abused individuals divorce versus just 25% of the general population.

Parent-child relationships

Parents with histories of childhood trauma experience disruption in bonding with their own children. They are more likely to use harsh discipline practices and experience poor communication within the parent-child relationship.


Childhood trauma survivors tend to view relationships through a lens of mistrust and struggle to feel safe depending on others. This makes forming close friendships challenging.

Intimate partner violence

Both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence disproportionately have adverse childhood experiences. Around 1 in 3 domestic abusers were abused themselves as children.

Physical health effects

Beyond mental health, childhood trauma also harms long-term physical health starting right at the cellular level.

Immune dysfunction

Toxic stress from early trauma alters immune system responses, increasing inflammation that contributes to numerous diseases. Adults abused as children have a 53% increased risk of suffering autoimmune disorders like lupus, arthritis, asthma, etc.


Childhood trauma raises adult risks of being overweight or obese by over 30%. The chronically high cortisol from trauma affects fat distribution and metabolic regulation.

High blood pressure

People with 6 or more adverse childhood experiences have a 30% higher chance of developing high blood pressure versus those with no trauma. High blood pressure in turn elevates heart disease and stroke risks.

Heart disease

Early life stress accelerates atherosclerosis, the artery clogging process underlying heart attacks and heart failure. Abused children have 50% higher odds of having a heart attack as adults.


Traumatic childhood experiences are linked to a 32% increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, likely due to altered cortisol and metabolic impacts.


Childhood trauma may raise risks for lung, liver, cervical, and esophageal cancers. Proposed mechanisms relate to trauma’s effects on immune function, epigenetics, inflammation, and health behaviors like smoking.

Chronic pain

Childhood trauma strongly predicts suffering from chronic widespread pain, fibromyalgia, migraines, pelvic pain, back pain, and other conditions characterized by unexplained pain in adulthood.

Sleep disorders

Children exposed to trauma are far more likely to experience sleep disturbances like insomnia, sleep apnea, and restless leg syndrome later in life. Disruptions to crucial sleep influence subsequent mental and physical health risks.

All-cause mortality

Childhood trauma carries an increased mortality risk over decades. Adults who experienced 6 or more adverse childhood experiences died on average 20 years earlier than those reporting no trauma.

Substance abuse effects

Self-medicating with substances is a maladaptive coping mechanism often seen in childhood trauma survivors.

Alcohol abuse

Around 1 in 4 children who experience trauma like abuse or neglect grow up to have alcohol dependence issues versus just 1 in 10 of the general population.

Drug abuse

Early trauma also dramatically elevates risks of abusing illicit drugs like marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, etc. Up to 65% of childhood trauma survivors battle drug abuse problems.

Nicotine dependence

Individuals with at least 4 types of childhood traumas have over 4 times the risk of becoming regular smokers compared to those with no adverse childhood experiences. Smoking often represents an attempt to self-soothe.

Earlier initiation

On average, traumatized children and teens initiate substance use 2-4 years earlier than non-traumatized youth. Starting any substance use earlier often signals worse outcomes.

Risky behaviors

Those who turn to substances to cope with childhood trauma additionally end up engaging in more activities like driving drunk, unsafe sex, and sharing needles that escalate risks.


Ultimately, early trauma helps explain heightened risks of lethal overdoses. One study found adults with adverse childhood experiences had 2-4 times higher odds of suffering a substance abuse-related death.

Effects on sense of self

Childhood trauma shakes up a child’s developing identity in ways that leave lasting scars on their sense of self.

Poor self-esteem

Children internalize negative messages from abuse and trauma, feeling worthless, flawed, or undeserving of love. This corrodes self-esteem and leaves them viewing themselves in an unrealistically negative light.


Traumatized kids feel unable to stop or change the bad things happening to them, breeding a sense of helplessness. They carry this into adulthood, struggling to feel empowered.

Shame and guilt

Childhood trauma leaves many grappling with deep senses of shame and guilt they internalize from the abuse or trauma experience itself. This leads to constant feelings of shame, self-blame, and low self-worth.

Difficulty trusting

When caregivers, trusted adults, or other childhood sources inflict trauma, it understandably destroys the child’s ability to trust. They grow up seeing the world through a lens of suspicion, making it hard to trust others.

Confusion with identity

Experiencing trauma during key identity development phases often severely alters one’s sense of identity. Trauma survivors often struggle to understand themselves or have a weak sense of who they are.

Other effects

Beyond the major areas discussed above, childhood trauma influences other facets of life as well.

Attachment issues

Childhood trauma disrupts healthy bonding between child and caregiver. This hampers the ability to form secure attachments throughout life.

Cognitive deficits

Traumatized children often suffer problems with focus, memory, planning, and decision making that persist into adulthood. Childhood trauma directly affects brain areas involved in learning and cognition.

School issues

Children who have experienced trauma struggle more in school due to troubles with cognitive abilities, behavior, emotions, and relationships. Rates of school failure and dropout increase.

Financial instability

Adults abused as children face higher rates of unemployment, poverty, and financial insecurity. Early trauma contributes to the cycle of disadvantage.

Legal issues

Childhood trauma raises risks of encountering legal problems as juveniles and adults, like getting arrested, convicted, or incarcerated. Around 1 in 3 childhood trauma survivors spend time behind bars.

How can we help children overcome trauma?

While childhood trauma causes widespread issues, the good news is early intervention can dramatically help offset negative effects. Here are some key ways we can help children overcome trauma:

Trauma-informed schools

Schools need trauma-informed training to understand and accommodate affected children’s triggers, behaviors, and learning deficits. Individualized plans, counseling, and support help students heal and thrive academically.

Accessible mental health treatment

Ongoing therapy and psychiatric services tailored to each child’s trauma experiences will have enormous impact on their mental health as children and later adults. Removing barriers to accessing care is crucial.

Caregiver education

Educating caregivers on childhood trauma helps them provide informed support. It also helps prevent perpetuation of generational patterns of trauma and abuse.

Mentorship programs

Mentorship helps traumatized youth build valuable relationships and positively shape their personal identities and skills. Quality mentorship vastly improves children’s outlooks.

Strengthen support systems

Boosting supports and nurturing relationships buffer children from trauma’s effects. Grandparents, teachers, coaches, community members, etc. can provide kids with consistency and care.

Self-care skills

Equipping children with self-care techniques like mindfulness, meditation, journaling, and exercise empowers them to better manage emotions and traumatic stress. Building these healthy coping habits early is beneficial.


Teaching children that trauma is never their fault prevents self-blame and low self-esteem. Letting them know their symptoms are normal reactions to trauma fosters healing.


In summary, childhood trauma triggers a cascade of psychological, physical, and socioeconomic consequences across the lifespan. Trauma quite literally alters the structure of the developing brain, priming children to carry lifelong risks for mental illnesses, chronic disease, social problems, and early mortality. The burdens of childhood trauma extend across generations as well, highlighting the need for early identification and trauma-informed care. While the impacts of trauma in childhood are undoubtedly profound, effective interventions can still help people overcome early adversity and lead healthier, happier lives. Healing is always possible with compassion, understanding, and the right support.

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