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4 Ways Childhood Trauma Impacts Young Adult Thriving

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What happens to us in our first 10 years or so of life will affect every single decade that follows. During this incredibly rapid period of growth and development, our bodies, brains, and personalities are imprinted by our early experiences. That’s why childhood trauma can have such a significant impact on our mental and physical health and well-being throughout our entire lives. 

What constitutes childhood trauma varies widely. Physical or sexual abuse, neglect, and witnessing violence in the home are all common forms of childhood trauma. In addition, children can experience relational trauma—a disruption in the primary bond with parent or caregiver. Events outside the home can also catalyze trauma, ranging from extreme bullying to the collective trauma created by disastrous events like a pandemic.

How does the childhood trauma effect impact an individual’s ability to thrive as they grow older? Here are four ways that trauma can manifest psychologically and physiologically as children mature into adolescence, young adulthood, and beyond. 

The Connection Between Trauma and Self-Worth

How we are treated from birth onward by those closest to us is fundamental in shaping our sense of ourselves as valuable and worthy of love and care. Children who are abused or neglected by primary caregivers internalize the message that they are not lovable. Even loving parents who fail to empathize with a child to the extent that their nature requires may unintentionally give them this message. In cases of parentification—when parents rely on their children to meet their emotional needs—children learn the lesson that their own needs are not important. 

As a result, traumatized children develop a core belief that they are not good enough. They may blame themselves for the way they are treated, believing that if they were somehow “better,” their parent would “love them more.” Even when this perception of self is subconscious or semi-conscious, it can be extremely difficult to reverse later in life. An individual may eventually come to understand why their parent acted the way they did—perhaps because of their own unhealed childhood trauma or because of a mental or physical illness. But simply understanding may not be enough to change the adult child’s self-image and sense of self-worth.

Moreover, this primal wound, as it is sometimes referred to, creates a deep well of emotional pain. Consequently, young adults who have experienced childhood trauma and the accompanying guilt and shame are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, and maladaptive coping mechanisms such as substance abuse and self-harm. 

Know the Facts

A study of young adults found that childhood trauma was significantly correlated with elevated psychological distress, increased sleep disturbances, reduced emotional well-being, and lower perceived social support.

The Impact of Trauma on Young Adult Relationships

Chronic and relational trauma in the early years of life have an enormous influence on our ability to form authentic connections with others. Our first connection with our primary caregiver sets the stage for our relationships and interactions throughout our lifetime. When that relationship creates confusion, fear, shame, and an inability to depend on the other person, those feelings translate to all our other relationships—with friends, romantic partners, and even colleagues and authority figures. People who have undergone struggle with childhood trauma symptoms often have a very hard time trusting others and sharing their inner selves and emotions.

A disrupted bond with our parent or primary caregiver typically results in what is known as insecure attachment. There are several types of insecure attachment, which express themselves in different ways within relationships. An adult who experienced abuse or neglect as a child may have an “insecure avoidant” attachment style—they avoid relying on others because of their fear of betrayal or rejection.

People who experienced inconsistent nurturing from parents often have an “insecure anxious” attachment style: They are clingy and needy in relationships, and require constant assurance that they are loved. One study of emerging adult women (ages 18–24) found that childhood trauma was associated with higher levels of anxious attachment.

In addition, children whose parents relied on them to fulfill their emotional needs may become “people pleasers,” afraid of saying no or setting appropriate boundaries with others.

Know the Facts

A study of 21,000 child abuse survivors age 60 and up found that they had a higher rate of failed marriages and relationships than those who had not experienced childhood trauma.

The Health Repercussions of Childhood Trauma

The groundbreaking ACE Study, which included more than 17,000 participants, examined how childhood trauma impacts both physical and mental health in adults. The results showed that childhood trauma increases an individual’s risk of both mental health issues and chronic disease, including all of the following:

  • Asthma
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Depression
  • Suicide
  • Diabetes
  • Stroke
  • Risky behavior such as smoking 
  • Cancer
  • Alcoholism
  • Heart, liver, lung, and autoimmune disease
  • Accelerated aging of the body and brain
  • Chronic headaches.

Some of these long-term health repercussions could be attributed to poor self-care due to mental health issues. However, the study found that even participants with healthier lifestyles in adulthood had a higher risk of health conditions due to their childhood trauma effect. Researchers have looked closely at the mechanism through which risk is exacerbated and concluded that the ongoing stress associated with childhood trauma negatively affects the nervous system. Over time, high levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) create inflammation and imbalances that critically impact the developing brain and body in a myriad of ways. 

Childhood trauma actually changes the volume of various regions of the brain, contributing to mental health and co-occurring disorders, such as substance abuse. A study published in June of 2021 compared the effects of morphine (an opioid drug) on a group of people who had experienced childhood abuse and neglect and a group who had no history of childhood trauma. They found that the first group had stronger reactions of pleasure and craving. Childhood trauma is also associated with a higher risk of alcohol use disorder. This research suggests that childhood trauma impacts the brain in a way that creates a greater vulnerability to addiction.

How Trauma Affects Cognitive Abilities

When brain function is disrupted, the results are wide-ranging. Along with mental and physical health childhood trauma effects, as discussed above, individuals can also experience cognitive issues—difficulties with memory, thinking logically, and problem solving. These executive functioning issues can prevent them from setting goals, planning for the future, and succeeding in academic or work environments. Research has found that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for executive functioning, is actually smaller in individuals who have experienced childhood trauma.

Along with brain structure and function, cognitive impairments can also be caused by the habitual psychological patterns that a child often develops as a result of trauma. When children are constantly faced with stressors, their resources go entirely toward surviving the stressor. Therefore, they have less energy, focus, and interest available for learning, gaining new skills, and making thoughtful decisions. 

Even after the traumatic experience is over, trauma triggers and the constant effort to avoid such triggers draw their resources and attention away from taking in new information. Hence, childhood trauma symptoms and PTSD are associated with the following issues in young adulthood and beyond:

Healing Childhood Trauma

The Childhood childhood trauma effect cannot be erased or undone. However, it is possible to heal the inner child. At Newport Institute, we guide young adults to repair the impact of trauma on their sense of self and ability to make lasting bonds with others. Individual therapy sessions with our expert clinicians are complemented by group experiences that rebuild trust and authentic connection. 

Because trauma leaves its residue not just in the mind but also in the body and nervous system, accessing the mind-body connection is powerful in healing trauma. The most effective treatment incorporates a variety of modalities:

  • Clinical modalities, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, address the false beliefs and thoughts that are instilled by trauma.
  • Experiential modalities, like music and art therapy, and somatic (body-based) therapies, like EFT and EMDR, allow clients to release trauma through movement and nonverbal self-expression.
  • Yoga therapy works to rebalance the nervous system through the use of conscious breathing techniques.
  • New research shows that exercise may mitigate both the psychological and physiological impacts of childhood trauma in young women.

Ultimately, young adults come to understand on both a mental and emotional level that they are worthy of love, compassion, and self-acceptance. And the earlier treatment begins, the greater chance a young adult has to reverse the negative impacts of early experiences. Contact us today to learn more about Newport Institute’s approach to healing the anxiety, depression, and self-destructive behaviors caused by childhood trauma and attachment wounds. 

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Treatment / April 4, 2022