How Does Childhood Trauma Impact Development? (And How Do We Stop the Cycle)?
Updated: Feb 17
It’s estimated that 1 in 7 children are impacted by abuse and neglect each year (and that number is likely very under-reported)*. While children are resilient and many go on to live full and healthy lives, others grow up with the effects of chronic fear, pain, loneliness, and bodily harm. When trauma is significant and the impacts are left unprocessed, they can cause substantial “ripple effects.” Some of those might include anxiety, depression, PTSD, learning difficulties, and relationship dysfunction. Further, without help or an opportunity to heal, some go on to perpetuate the same cycle with their own children.
So, how do we stop this cycle of trauma? We can start by better understanding it.
Many children are subjected to what we call “adverse childhood experiences.” These might include abuse, neglect, or witnessing violence in the home or community. Emotionally, it is particularly harmful when a child’s caregiver is unable to meet their needs, such as for safety, soothing, and emotional validation. When they witness fear or danger, children need to learn how to conceptualize what is happening to them and return to a state of calm and safety. When a child’s caregivers cannot show them how to do this or if they are the abusers themselves, long-term impairments in coping, emotional awareness, and reasoning can occur. Children who have experienced trauma are more likely to be developmentally delayed and to suffer changes in the brain that lead to hyper-reactivity around danger and survival while simultaneously suffering with impaired learning, attention, memory, and executive functioning.
In adolescence, the effects of trauma lead to lower self-esteem and difficulty with social skills. When it comes to relationships, some prefer to avoid intimacy and to favor freedom, autonomy, and situations where there is a sense of predictability and certainty. On the other hand, some become dependent on others and preoccupied with how close they can become to their partners, friends, teachers, or even strangers. Still others show a combination of pulling other people in only to push them away when they feel uncomfortable or misunderstood. Beneath the surface, many adolescents experience anxiety, depression, trouble sleeping, and PTSD. Sadly, many suffer in silence. If any symptoms of trauma are visible to the outside world, they are typically seen as inattentive, hyperactive, dramatic, or oppositional. Clearly childhood trauma is negatively impactful enough, but it also makes a person statistically more likely to experience additional traumatic incidents later in life.
As adults, many of the impacts of early trauma persist, including mental health symptoms and relationship difficulties. Those that go on to have children themselves do not necessarily recreate the same environments that they experienced early in life; however, a subset of them do. Becoming a parent can be a trigger for memories of abuse or neglect. Those parents might experience self-doubt, anger and frustration, or trouble bonding with their children. They might be resistant to allowing their child to rely on them. They might be wary of losing their own freedom. Still others might feel debilitating fear for their child’s safety. Due to parents’ own underlying problems, their child’s needs might go unmet and they might be subjected to abuse, neglect, or smothering behavior.
So, as we can see, early childhood trauma has widespread impacts across the lifespan. Trauma can lead to anxiety, depression, PTSD, acting out behaviors, and relationship dysfunction that are handed down throughout generations. A parent’s own trauma background can have great impact on their ability to care for and bond with their children, keep them safe, meet their needs at the expense of their own, and keep a calm and predictable household. These impairments make it more likely that the next generation will, in turn, suffer adverse childhood experiences.
With a broader lens and by taking a longer and more contextual view of a person’s history, we can learn to better understand their emotional and behavioral patterns. No one person operates in a bubble. Instead, a person’s life can only be conceptualized by taking their childhood experiences, developmental experiences, and family backgrounds into account. We should also note relevant events that took place before they were born! (See our post on Intergenerational Trauma)
Imagine what might be possible if, instead of asking, “What’s wrong with you?” we learned to ask, “What’s happened to you?**”
If you or someone you care about is suffering with the effects of childhood trauma, help and healing are available. Skyline psychologists are trauma-informed clinicians and are qualified to provide support and evidence-based methods of treatment for anxiety, stress, trauma, and PTSD. Contact us to provide information about what you have been experiencing and ask us how we can create a unique treatment plan for you.
* According to the CDC
** (Partridge, 2019)