Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Making Sense of Childhood Trauma

Understanding the types and impact of trauma.

Key points

  • Childhood trauma can profoundly impact children and teens.
  • Emotional, physical, and behavioral factors can serve as indicators of trauma exposure.
  • Childhood trauma can be overcome with the support of trusted and informed adults.

When we think of trauma, most of us imagine endless suffering and pain brought forth by events such as violent war, becoming a refugee, or the violent death of a loved one. However, trauma can be caused by events that are seemingly much smaller in impact, such as a contentious parental divorce, witnessing a loved one's substance abuse, or being persistently bullied. It can come in all shapes and sizes and can impact along a spectrum of intensity based on mindset, coping skills, resiliency and grit, and personality.

 Image by Darya Sannikova via Pexels
Source: Image by Darya Sannikova via Pexels

Traumatic memories—those that go against our understanding of the world and our place in it—can be triggered at almost any time. These memories can then have a profound impact on our thoughts, behaviors, actions, and overall well-being.

This can be especially harrowing for children and teens who are still developing cognitively, emotionally, socially, and morally. Young people have not had the opportunity to fully understand emotions, strengthen their resilience, or develop healthy coping strategies. This leads to an elevated need for guidance and support from trusted adults who are well-versed in trauma-informed care.

The Impact of Childhood Trauma

Acute, chronic, or complex trauma can be endured directly or indirectly and can impact a number of areas in children and teens, including:

  • Cognitions: Processing, retention, making connections, executive functioning.
  • Behaviors: Maladaptive coping, trouble managing big emotions, lack of empathy.
  • Physiological health: Sleep, eating, daily wellness habits, medical and somatic symptoms.
  • Social-emotional health: Social withdrawal, low self-esteem and sense of self, difficulty with criticism.
  • Brain: Excessive reactivity in the amygdala, smaller prefrontal cortex, hyperarousal.

Recent studies have provided more insight into the impact of childhood trauma on a still-developing brain’s structure and functioning. The Child Welfare Information Gateway, a service of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has found that chemical and structural changes occur in the brain when a child is exposed to trauma and adverse experiences. The National Center for Child Traumatic Stress further explains that consistent exposure to trauma or to experiences that trigger the trauma response could cause the brain to be trapped in a constant state of arousal, leading to an inability to self-regulate, process, and respond effectively.

Indicators of Childhood Trauma

Young people who have been exposed to trauma oftentimes display signs indicating that they are in need of support. These indicators could include:

  • Emotional clues, such as anxiety, irritability, mood swings, hyperalertness, emotional numbness, shame, or guilt.
  • Behavioral clues, such as difficulty with authority or criticism, clinginess, avoidance, outbursts, or withdrawal.
  • Physical clues, such as fatigue, edginess, hyper or hypo activeness, or somatic symptoms.

It should be noted that these indicators are not all-inclusive and could be related to other factors such as learning disabilities, cultural norms, or personality. Therefore, trauma-informed supports should be careful and purposeful in understanding the scope and level of trauma within a young person in their care.

The magnitude of trauma can be far-reaching for children and teens. However, it can be overcome. The first step is education. With a solid understanding of trauma, its impact, and indicators to look for, the path towards helping a young person triumph over trauma has begun.