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How Childhood Trauma Affects Us as Adults

Childhood trauma can affect how adults behave and think in their everyday lives. Many adults in the United States have experienced neglect or abuse as a child and yet these adults can still have full and highly productive lives. At the same time, these kinds of adults can also be seen drinking at a club every night, smoking, taking drugs, or being in bad relationships. Adverse childhood experiences include verbal, physical, or sexual abuse, neglect, unsafe environment, bullying, and parent abandonment. Memories of negative experiences as a child can be repressed so the individual can cope and move forward with their life. Repressed memories, which serve as a defense mechanism, were a foundation of Freud’s psychoanalytic framework. He believed that people with repressed memories found it too difficult to confront their traumatic memories, which led to their decision to expel them from conscious thought. Although blocking painful memories can help overcome immediate overwhelming emotional distress, these repressed emotions may resurface at any time, contributing to mood disorders, anxiety, and negative physical health effects.

The effects of childhood trauma can be long-lasting. A history of childhood adversities is associated with the pathogenesis of several psychiatric conditions such as major depressive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, eating disorders, alcohol/substance dependence, and personality disorders (Faravelli et al., 2014). This trend provides evidence that childhood trauma may be a risk factor for mental health conditions or illness. Exposure to traumatic events can lead to behavioral changes in children. Many people assume that very young children would not be affected by the events that unfold around them, believing that they would be too young to remember or comprehend. However, neglecting to care for children’s mental well-being can cause children to feel isolated, unloved, and fearful of dependence (Dhaliwal, 2018). There are associations between exposure to violence and emotional and behavioral problems. Infants and toddlers who witness violence either in their homes or in their community show excessive irritability, immature behavior, sleep disturbances, emotional distress, fears of being alone, and regression in toileting and language (Osofsky, 1999). Exposure to trauma can interfere with children’s normal development of trust and the development of autonomy. Nurturing children’s innate need for autonomy and trust with other individuals encourages independence, confidence, and social skills to interact with their peers and others. When children who experience these symptoms become adults, they may exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, including repeated re-experiencing of the traumatic event, avoidance, numbing of responsiveness, and increased arousal (Osaofsky, 1999). Children who are exposed to violence show a greater frequency of internalizing (withdrawal, anxiety) and externalizing (aggressiveness, delinquency) (Osaofsky, 1999). These children often display more behavioral problems in comparison to children from nonviolent families. Children need a strong relationship with their parents or with a competent, caring, positive adult who could support them and be a protective resource to enable them to cope with exposure to violence. Children who go through traumatic events need the support of a significant adult who can help their cognitive and social development proceed positively even with adversity.

Children exposed to violence are more likely to also carry out violent activities. According to the National Summary of Injury Mortality Data, the homicide rate among young people ages 15 to 24 has more than doubled since 1950, up to a rate of 37 homicides per 100,000 in 1991 (Osofsky, 1999). As violence increases in the community, children are more likely to be exposed to dangerous situations around them. Children who have been exposed to violence in their communities, their families, and in the media, are likely to exhibit violent behavior as they get older, including physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Adolescent personality is associated with both positive and negative aspects of interpersonal relationships, including friendship, parenting quality, and social aggression (Soho & Tackett, 2015). There is a continuity between the biological bases of youth and adult personality. The lasting impact on adults of childhood experiences, such as growing up with a mentally ill parent, placement in official care settings, and the death of a parent in childhood, depends on later factors such as the strength of adult marriages and other social relationships, educational and occupational attainment, and the adequacy of family functioning (Horwitz, 2001). Children who are from broken families or a negative living environment may have more trouble forming attachments in romantic relationships compared to children who grew up in a loving and positive household environment. Children who are surrounded by a negative environment would benefit from having a place that can shield them from exposure to violence which can aid in their resilience. These places can include schools, community centers, and churches (Osofsky, 1999). Teachers and other trusted adults can provide emotional support, which can reduce anxiety and increase their feeling of safety.

Although many people who have childhood trauma experience negative mental, physical, and emotional effects, some individuals who experienced childhood sexual and physical abuse and neglect do not necessarily have psychological consequences. The long-term mental health impacts of childhood victimization unfold within the context of a lifetime of stressors (Horwitz, 2001). The impact of childhood adversities on later psychological outcomes is not simple and direct. Negative events that occur in an individual’s life can affect their psychological well-being as well. It is not dependent only on what they experienced as a child. Negative events occur in an individual’s life during childhood and combining those negative emotional experiences to stressors during adulthood may leave lasting effects. Individuals who did not experience childhood trauma may be more resilient to daily stressors compared to others who did not experience traumatic events during their childhood. Overcoming childhood trauma in adulthood can be very hard and seeking professional help that can provide guidance and support would be a good step in taking care of one 's mental and emotional condition. 

Works Cited

Horwitz, Allan V., et al. “The Impact of Childhood Abuse and Neglect on Adult Mental Health: A Prospective Study.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior, vol. 42, no. 2, 2001, pp. 184–201. JSTOR,

Faravelli, Carlo, et al. “Different Childhood Adversities Are Associated with Different Symptom Patterns in Adulthood.” Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, vol. 83, no. 5, 2014, pp. 320–21. JSTOR,

Osofsky, Joy D. “The Impact of Violence on Children.” The Future of Children, vol. 9, no. 3, 1999, pp. 33–49. JSTOR,

Soto, Christopher J., and Jennifer L. Tackett. “Personality Traits in Childhood and Adolescence: Structure, Development, and Outcomes.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 24, no. 5, 2015, pp. 358–62. JSTOR,

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