Childhood Trauma’s Lasting Effects on Mental and Physical Health

How to help children recover and thrive after adversity
child covering ears because parents are arguing

Traumatic events don’t always leave physical scars, but they often leave emotional and psychological ones. Those imprints can affect a child’s mental and physical health for years to come — and even into adulthood.

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Psychologist Kate Eshleman, PsyD, says that often, children can move on from traumatic events and thrive. But they may need a helping hand. “There are things parents and caregivers can do to support a child after trauma.”

Understanding adverse childhood experiences

Child health experts often talk about adverse childhood experiences (sometimes called ACEs) — traumatic events in a child’s life.

Some ACEs are clearly terrifying — such as abuse, witnessing extreme violence or surviving a natural disaster. 

But kids see the world differently than adults do and can experience distress from things that might not seem so scary to grown-ups, says Dr. Eshleman. Events like chronic bullying at school, the death of a family member or divorce can also traumatize a child.

“Parents should be mindful that even though an event might not seem traumatic to them, it may have been traumatic for their child,” she says.

Lingering effects of stress: risk factors

Many children who experience an adverse event don’t have long-lasting effects. Still, some factors increase the chance of later problems, Dr. Eshleman says: 

Age

Trauma can leave a stamp at any age. But children who experience an adverse event before the age of 8 may be particularly vulnerable.

Level of trauma

Not everyone experiences trauma the same way. Some kids can bounce back from major stressors while others are more affected by things that, on the surface, seem less severe. Overall, the more extreme the trauma, the higher the risk for lasting difficulty.

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Duration of trauma

Chronic or repeated exposure to adverse events increases the risk of lasting health problems. Children who witness repeated violence in an unsafe neighborhood, or those who are abused, are more likely to have long-term problems than a child who experiences a one-time event, such as a car crash.

Effects of childhood trauma

Past traumas can stay with a child — and even affect their physical health. Children who experience traumatic events have a greater chance of developing health conditions, including:

There are two main ways that trauma can cause those lingering effects, Dr. Eshleman explains:

Physical responses

“The body responds to emotional stress in much the same way it responds to physical stress,” Dr. Eshleman says.

Elevated proteins: After physical head injuries such as concussions, levels of a protein called S100B can spike in the brain. Researchers found similarly high levels of this protein in children who had experienced emotional trauma. S100B is associated with potentially damaging inflammation in the brain.

High levels of stress hormones: Stress affects the body from head to toe. When something scary happens, stress hormones set your heart racing and make you break into a cold sweat. But if those hormones stay elevated for a long time, they can cause inflammation in the body and lead to lasting health problems. “The stress response can wear on our bodies,” Dr. Eshleman says.

Emotional responses

“Sometimes, significant stress or trauma can lead to mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression,” says Dr. Eshleman. And people with untreated mental health problems are:

  • At increased risk for disease.
  • Less likely to make healthy choices, like seeing the doctor regularly or eating well.
  • More likely to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as drinking and smoking.

Support and treatment for childhood trauma

If you’re caring for a child who has survived trauma, you might be feeling overwhelmed by all the possible outcomes. It’s worth repeating: Those outcomes aren’t inevitable. As a caregiver, you can take steps to reduce the risks for your child:

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Hear what your child is saying

“Sometimes, adults minimize the significance of a traumatic event such as bullying,” Dr. Eshleman says. You may be trying to help your child by taking the “it’s not so bad” approach.

But trauma might make your child shut down — when you want them to let you in. Validate your child’s experience. Let them know that you understand how hard the experience was and that you’re there to help.

Watch for clues

It’s not always easy for children to explain what they’re thinking. After a distressing event, look for changes in behavior. These can be clues that your child is having a difficult time. Some common changes to watch for include:

  • Eating more or less than usual.
  • Sleep changes, including having trouble sleeping or needing more sleep than usual.
  • Regression (such as a potty-trained preschooler having accidents again, or a toddler who slept through the night now waking frequently).
  • Irritability and grumpiness.
  • Clinginess and separation anxiety — especially in younger kids.

Talk it out

“Encourage opportunities for discussion and allow kids to express their thoughts and feelings,” says Dr. Eshleman.

Ask for help

Mental health professionals can use tools such as trauma-focused treatments to help children recover from trauma. Not sure where to start? Dr. Eshleman recommends talking to your pediatrician for recommendations.

Take care of yourself

If your child has been through a trauma, there’s a good chance the experience was stressful for you as well. “Make sure you’re getting the support you need and engaging in healthy behaviors. If you’re having difficulty coping, seek help for yourself, too,” says Dr. Eshleman.

Adults: It’s not too late to deal with childhood trauma

Does this all sound a little too familiar? Not everyone gets the support they need in childhood. You may recognize that your own ACEs dealt you a bad hand. And you might still be dealing with the emotional and physical consequences. 

Help is available at any age. “There are a variety of therapies that are very effective at treating anxiety, depression and PTSD,” Dr. Eshleman says. “It’s never too late to work with a mental health professional.”

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