Young Adult Mental Health & Substance Abuse Treatment Centers

5 Ways Childhood Trauma Impacts Young Adults

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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 five ways that trauma can manifest psychologically and physiologically as children mature into adolescence, young adulthood, and beyond. 

Key Takeaways

  • Childhood trauma impacts young adults on multiple levels, including psychologically, physically, and cognitively.
  • Research shows that people who have experienced traumatic events in childhood are up to three times more likely to develop a mental health condition and 15 times more likely to develop borderline personality disorder.
  • Adverse childhood experiences (ACES) can negatively impact relationship skills and brain function.
  • With effective, evidence-based treatment, young adults can address the effects of childhood trauma and lead thriving lives.

The Impact of Childhood Trauma and PTSD

Undergoing traumatic experiences in childhood leaves a long-lasting impact on an individual’s overall well-being. Over decades of research, experts have come to understand that certain types of experiences during our formative years can have long-lasting effects on our mental and physical health. 

Trauma and PTSD are categorized as either simple or complex. Simple trauma is typically related to a specific, significant traumatic event, such as natural disaster or a car accident. Complex trauma is chronic and pervasive. This kind of ongoing stress impacts individuals both physically and psychologically for the rest of their lives. When children grow up in an environment where they are exposed on a regular basis to what they perceive as a threat, their nervous system is perennially in a state of fight-flight-or-freeze.

As a result, toxic neurochemicals are constantly flowing through their organs. This traumatic stress can actually change the cells in the brain and body and potentially trigger physiological and psychological symptoms, such as depression or disease.

Below are the five primary ways that childhood traumatic events and ongoing traumatic stress can influence a person’s experiences in adulthood.

#1: Higher Risk of Mental Health Conditions

Adverse childhood experiences (ACES) are associated with a significantly higher risk of mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, and borderline personality disorder. In fact, recent research shows that experiencing childhood traumatic events increases the risk of developing a mental health disorder in adulthood as much as three times.

In addition, children who undergo traumatic experiences are 15 times more likely to be diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) later in life. That’s because exposure to trauma at an early age negatively affects a young person’s sense of self, brain function, ability to make attachments, and emotion-regulation strategies, which are all related to the development of BPD.

Moreover, a 2023 study finds that having conscious memories of childhood trauma can make mental health conditions worse. According to study author Andrea Danese, “Our study reveals that how a person perceives and remembers experiences of childhood abuse or neglect has greater implications on future emotional disorders than the experience itself.”

Know the Facts

Young adults who remember experiences of childhood maltreatment before age 12 had a greater number of depressive or anxiety episodes over the subsequent decade than those who did not remember maltreatment.

#2: Lack of 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.

#3: Struggles in Relationships

Chronic and relational traumatic experiences 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 traumatic stress, 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 struggle with childhood trauma symptoms often have a very hard time trusting others and sharing their inner selves and emotions. And this in turn negatively affects mental health.

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 physical or sexual 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.

#4: Negative Health Repercussions

The groundbreaking ACE Study, which included more than 17,000 participants, examined how childhood traumatic events impact 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. Child trauma survivors were more likely to experience 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.

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#5: Problems with Cognitive Abilities

When brain function is disrupted by a traumatic event, the results are wide-ranging. Along with mental and physical health childhood trauma effects, as discussed above, individuals can also experience cognitive issues that come with traumatic stress—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 and PTSD are associated with the following issues in young adulthood and beyond:

Addressing the Mental Health Impact of Childhood Trauma on Young Adults

The 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 and traumatic events on their sense of self and ability to make lasting bonds with others. Individual therapy sessions with our expert mental health professionals are complemented by group experiences that rebuild trust and authentic connection. 

Because child 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 for childhood trauma and PTSD incorporates a variety of modalities:

  • Clinical modalities, such as Trauma-Focused 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.
  • Family therapy, such as the Attachment-Based Family Therapy we use at Newport Institute, helps rebuild the parent-child relationship so parents can serve as a loving resource as young adult children navigate mental health challenges.
  • 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 child trauma.

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. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How does trauma affect adult relationships?
  • What are the long-term effects of childhood trauma?
  • What are 4 main things childhood trauma deeply affects?
  • What happens to childhood trauma when left untreated?
  • Does childhood trauma ever go away?

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Treatment / July 6, 2023