What is childhood trauma?

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The following piece was authored by Michael Vallejo, LCSW, a child and family therapist based in Colorado.


We hear about “trauma” and “being traumatized” quite often these days, but not everyone may fully understand the implications of these experiences. And early childhood trauma can be particularly detrimental. 

Early childhood trauma refers to trauma that occurs between birth and age six. During this period, rapid growth and brain development occur in children, and they are very much dependent on their caretakers for safety, care, and nurturing. This exposure to different people, circumstances, and experiences can increase a child’s susceptibility to trauma. 

But what exactly is childhood trauma? Here, we’ll discuss just that. 

What Is Childhood Trauma?

Childhood trauma can take many different forms depending on the circumstance and the person, but it is commonly defined as any hazardous or dangerous situation that a child encounters, observes, or learns about. 

However, not all trauma is created equal; what might be considered normal or readily accepted for one person may not be for another. This depends on the type of traumatic event(s) that they encounter.

What are Traumatic Events?

A traumatic event is one that is scary, dangerous, or violent. When we experience or see an urgent threat to ourselves or a loved one (often followed by major injury or harm), the incident can be traumatic. When this occurs, it may result in feelings of anxiety, loss, or distress. Children occasionally have these negative feelings in response to an encounter or event that they are unable to prevent. They may even be defenseless during this time.

In addition to potentially altering a child’s mental, physical, social, and emotional health, reactions to traumatic events can also have long-lasting consequences on how they function on a daily basis.

Traumatic events may include but are not limited to the following:

  • Violence in the home, school, or community
  • Living with a parent or guardian who has a mental illness
  • Loss of a loved one due to various circumstances (e.g., separation, death, etc.)
  • National disasters
  • Terrorism
  • Institutional racism in schools or communities
  • Experiencing or witnessing domestic violence

Identifying Signs of Trauma in Different Stages of Childhood

The signs of trauma may manifest differently in each child. Trauma may also show up differently depending on the child’s age. Here are some common signs to look out for if you think a child may be experiencing trauma:

Preschool children

Intense fear of separation from their parent or guardian

Screaming or crying a lot

Chronic nightmares

Eating poorly

Weight loss

Elementary school children

Difficulty concentrating

Feeling guilt or shame

Difficulty sleeping

Developing anxiety or fearfulness

Middle and high school children

Developing eating disorders or other self-harming behaviors

Feeling depressed or alone

Abusing alcohol and drugs

Risky sexual behavior

Signs of Childhood Trauma in Adults

Childhood trauma does not only show up during the childhood and adolescent stages. It can also manifest in adulthood. While some children will be able to process and recover from their trauma with the passage of time, maturity, or professional care, research shows that this trauma is associated with physical, emotional, and mental symptoms that may persist into adulthood [*].

The following are some indicators of childhood trauma that may continue on into adulthood:

  • Lack of trust in others 
  • Anger and aggression
  • Poor, chaotic, or unfulfilling relationships
  • Mood changes or emotional instability
  • Substance abuse
  • Difficulties with focus, attention, and concentration

The Effect of Childhood Trauma on Health and Life

Impact on Physical Health

A traumatic event can affect a child’s physical growth. Stress can also affect a child’s immune and central nervous systems, making it more difficult for them to reach their full potential. 

Studies have shown that children may be at risk of developing chronic illnesses later on in life the more they are exposed to negative experiences. In particular, recurrent trauma increases a child’s risk of developing heart disease, asthma, stroke, and diabetes [*]. Chronic pain, autoimmune diseases, and other disorders may also affect children with traumatic experiences.

Impact on Mental Health

Childhood trauma can also affect mental health. Children who go through trauma may also experience the following: 

  • High levels of stress
  • Depression
  • Psychotic disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Anger issues

Children exposed to complex traumas may even experience dissociation, which involves mentally separating oneself from the traumatic event [*]. They might imagine being outside of their bodies and watching reality from somewhere else. Children may even lose the memory of the experience, resulting in memory gaps.

Research has also found that the number of suicide attempts is significantly higher in adults who experienced traumas such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, and parental domestic violence as a child [*].

Impact on Relationships

A child’s relationship with their caregivers — whether they be parents, grandparents, or other familial or non-familial adults — is vital to their emotional and physical health. The attachment children have with their parents or guardians can help them learn to trust others, manage emotions, and interact positively with the world around them.

When a child experiences a trauma that teaches them that they cannot trust or rely on that caregiver, however, they’re likely to believe that the world around them is a scary place and people are dangerous. This lesson makes it incredibly difficult to form relationships throughout their childhood and even in their adult years.

Treatment for Childhood Trauma

Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

A subtype of cognitive behavioral therapy is trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy.

This research-based method relies on the involvement of dependable parents and caregivers in the treatment process. It also combines trauma-sensitive therapy with cognitive behavioral techniques and family support. Children and teens who are experiencing severe emotional challenges as a result of a traumatic event can benefit from TF-CBT, where twelve to fifteen sessions are usually required.

Play Therapy

Play therapy employs the therapeutic power of play to assist children in overcoming trauma. Children aged three to twelve are the target population for play therapy. Therapists observe children as they engage in play during a session of play therapy. The information they gather from how the child plays can be used to address trauma and create the appropriate coping mechanisms. 

Narrative Exposure Therapy

For PTSD sufferers, including children who are not candidates for TF-CBT, narrative exposure treatment (NET) is an excellent option. NET is a brief individual intervention that concentrates on integrating trauma exposure into a timeline of one’s own autobiography.

After therapy is over, the patient still has access to this timeline. NET works best for victims of several traumatic incidents. When working with children, it may help to use trauma worksheets as they work through their autobiographical timeline. 

The Bottom Line

It is never too late to get help if childhood trauma continues to affect you or your child negatively. Whether it is for your teen or for your own experiences, seeking the proper treatment from a licensed professional is one step closer to healing.


  1. Dye, H. The impact and long-term effects of childhood trauma. 7 February 2018.
  2. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Effects. 
  3. Wagner, K. Effects of Childhood Trauma on Depression and Suicidality in Adulthood. 30 November 2016.

1 thought on “What is childhood trauma?

  1. This is great, Nick! Thanks for sharing!
    And when we realize that there might be trauma behind the behavior, we really need to consider what is out perception about our students and their behavior.

    How do I perceive my students?
    • Are they…. Lazy? Or feeling helpless?
    • Are they…. Acting out? Or dysregulated?
    • Are they…. Angry? Or in fight, flight, freeze or fawn?
    • Are they…. Disengaged? Or overwhelmed?
    My perception -not reality- defines my action.



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