Many people have had traumatic experiences growing up. Sometimes when a childhood trauma is unresolved, it needs to be dealt with later in life. This article explores the topic of unresolved trauma, what it means, how to heal from childhood trauma and what those steps look like for overcoming childhood trauma.
How to Heal from Childhood Trauma
Childhood trauma may crop up later in life. When it does, it needs to be addressed. That’s because unresolved childhood trauma can seriously impair an adult’s relationships, life view, happiness and health.
The question of how to heal from childhood trauma can be complex, however. Sometimes misinformation or confusion in the population at large can be obstacles to finding trusted treatment answers and solutions.
What Is Unresolved Trauma vs. Unresolved Issues?
“Unresolved trauma” is an active and ususally disruptive emotional response to a terrible event or experience. Trauma that is “unresolved” can be characterized by mental, physical, emotional and/or behavioral symptoms or distress. Unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, relationship problems and physical symptoms like headaches or nausea are some of the ways that unresolved trauma can manifest, according to the American Psychological Association.
There is an important distinction to be drawn beetween unresolved childhood trauma and unresolved childhood issues, both of which may benefit from therapy. Many people in adulthood may look back at how they were raised and identify areas of dysfunction (intense sibling rivalry, an emotionally distant parent, etc.) In some cases, they may be able to trace the roots of a mental health condition like depression to specific issues in childhood.
While these issues may be significant enough to warrant therapy, they do not entail the experience of a traumatic or shocking event or situation during childhood. In this case, the more appropriate term for a person’s experience would be “childhood trauma.”
Common Sources of Childhood Trauma
According to experts, there are many sources of childhood trauma. For example, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) lists 12 common types of childhood trauma. Briefly, and in alphabetical order, these include:
- Bullying – The term refers to the intentional and unsolicited act of inflicting harm (emotional, physical, psychological and social) on someone less powerful, especially children.
- Community Violence – Children who witness intentionally committed violence in the community can be affected by this type of trauma.
- Complex Trauma – According to the NCTSN, complex trauma refers to both the child’s exposure to more than one traumatic event and the long-term and wide-ranging effects from the trauma. This requires professional treatment for the child to learn how to heal from childhood trauma.
- Disasters – The list of disasters that can cause childhood trauma when children experience them includes hurricanes, tornados, floods, earthquakes, wildfires, and extreme weather events such as drought, intense heat, wind, and rainstorms.
- Early Childhood Trauma – These traumatic experiences occur in children from the ages of birth to 6 years.
- Intimate Partner Violence – A child may witness harm inflicted on a parent by another parent or partner (a.k.a. “intimate partner violence” or “domestic violence”).
- Medical Trauma – Medical procedures and illnesses that a child experiences may result in physiological and psychological trauma, called “medical trauma.”
- Physical Abuse – When a parent or other caregiver does something to cause physical pain to a child, this is physical abuse. It includes a parent or other caregiver slapping, kicking, hitting, or neglecting a child.
- Refugee Trauma – Being displaced from a home or country and forced to flee to unfamiliar areas can cause tremendous emotional uncertainty in a child. While many children may be able to overcome this type of childhood trauma, others suffer the effects afterward.
- Sexual Abuse – Sometimes referred to as betrayal trauma, sexual abuse trauma is perpetrated by an adult or a person older than the child. It is for the pleasure/benefit (sometimes financial) of the adult. Consequently, the affected children lack coping mechanisms and are ill-equipped for how to work through childhood trauma.
- Terrorism and Violence – Shootings, bombings, and other types of terrorism using violent means are other sources of childhood trauma that can have lasting negative effects.
- Traumatic Grief – When someone the child knows dies, especially if that individual is a parent, the intense emotions surrounding the death may be too much for the child to handle. This sets the stage for the type of trauma known as traumatic grief. Children may find it difficult to process their grief, making everyday life a struggle. They also have trouble recalling positive memories of the deceased.
Anyone who has experienced one or more of these common types of trauma as a child may need help for how to heal from childhood trauma.
How It Can Manifest
Children who have experienced childhood trauma may respond in different ways depending on their age at the time of trauma. Young children (under the age of five) may become excessively clingy, have crying fits, display irritability, temper tantrums, engage in thumb-sucking or bed-wetting and act out the traumatic event during play. They also complain of stomachaches, headaches and other physical symptoms.
Between the ages of 6-11, children who have had no help learning how to heal from childhood trauma may show signs of an inability to concentrate, have trouble sleeping, want to spend more time alone, complain of more frequent headaches, stomachaches and/or other physical issues and become irrationally fearful. These children also have difficulties in school, lose interest in activities they enjoyed before and turn away from parents and friends.
Older children, ages 12-17, besides losing interest in activities and having more frequent complaints of headaches, stomachaches and trouble sleeping, may become resentful or angry. They’re also more likely to refuse any help for their problems and may turn to and begin to abuse alcohol or drugs.
The experience of childhood trauma can last long after a child enters adulthood. Researchers studying the long-term effects of childhood trauma point to problems with depression and anxiety stemming from the trauma. Adults who don’t know how to heal from childhood trauma may turn to alcohol or drugs to help numb the painful memories. This can lead to substance abuse and mental health disorders that require professional treatment to overcome.
Other manifestations of childhood trauma in adulthood include difficulties with social interaction, multiple health problems, low self-esteem and a lack of direction. Adults with unresolved childhood trauma are more prone to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), suicide and self-harm.
How Common It Is
Childhood trauma is more common than many people believe. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) estimates that more than two-thirds of children experience some kind of childhood trauma by the age of 16.
When to Seek Help for Overcoming Childhood Trauma
The short answer is to seek help sooner than later, since the longer unresolved childhood issues persist, the greater the likelihood that other negative behaviors and physical and mental health aspects will surface and cause problems.
Dealing With Childhood Trauma Immediately
When children experience trauma, parents and caregivers should address it right away. This helps minimize both the immediate and long-term effects of the traumatic experience and gives the child the best chance of learning how to work through childhood trauma.
How to Work Through Childhood Trauma as an Adult
Even if someone has never before had help overcoming childhood trauma, it is still helpful to address as an adult. How does one begin to get help for how to heal from childhood trauma? Here is a list of steps to take:
- Acknowledge the Trauma Occurred – As simple as this sounds, it’s often one of the most difficult aspects of dealing with childhood trauma. The event or events may have happened many years in the past, yet the individual remains stuck, unable to fully appreciate life. They may not even be able to define unresolved trauma. All they know is they continue to suffer unpleasant, debilitating, or painful symptoms and memories that are fearful, cause shame and anger.
- Find a Trained Therapist to Help – Locate a therapist in the area who is trained to deal with childhood trauma and can offer appropriate counseling, treatment and therapies. Look for therapists who are trauma-informed and carry certifications such as trauma-informed CBT certification, certified clinical trauma professional, child trauma certification, or certification from the Association of Traumatic Stress Specialists.
- Work With the Therapist on Appropriate Therapies – Together with the trained and certified trauma therapist, determine which types of therapies are best suited to learning how to heal from childhood trauma. Several therapies may be helpful, including:
- Trauma-focused CBT, or cognitive processing therapy
- Dialectical behavioral therapy
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
- Exposure therapy, or prolonged exposure therapy
- Somatic experiencing
- Commit to Sticking with Therapy – Recognize that it’s going to take some time to heal from the effects of childhood trauma. It will be necessary to spell out the trauma, identify how it affects your day-to-day life, learn coping mechanisms to deal with the residual traumatic effects and change how you think about the trauma.
- Participate in Support Groups – Interact with other individuals who’ve gone through childhood trauma in support groups, like the peer support groups that are part of the Trauma Survivors Network.
Find help to overcome childhood trauma by contacting our experts at FHE Health. We’re here to assist in how to heal from childhood trauma and how to get back to living the life you deserve.