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How Childhood Trauma and CPTSD Effects Brain Development

As children are growing up, there are different developmental milestones that they are supposed to meet at each age. However, when a young child endures trauma, especially repeated trauma, these milestones can easily get off track. This leaves the child without necessary skills that they need as they grow older.

When we are children, we only know what adults tell us. We get ideas about right and wrong, and proper social behavior. When we grow up with trauma in childhood, we have skewed ideas about what we are 'supposed' to do, and how we are 'supposed' to interact with others.

If children miss developmental milestones when they are growing up, they may struggle with emotional self-regulation, have attachment issues, not know how to form healthy relationships, or have problems in school.

According to Walden University:

Without early intervention and help, traumatized children grow up to be traumatized adults, often having abnormal reactions to stress, chronic physical ailments, relationship problems, learning difficulties, and tendencies to engage in risky behaviors like drug abuse and lawbreaking.

When parents and other caregivers are responsive, and notice the missed developmental milestones early on, then there are interventions that both parents and medical professionals can take to help children make up for what they have missed. However, if a child has a parent or caregiver that is abusive or neglectful, they are unlikely to notice the early education that their child is missing.

Parents are children's first teachers, and there are many important skills that children learn prior to going to school for the first time. This means, if parents aren't actively engaging with children on a regular basis and responding to their needs in a timely manner, then children are missing out on important brain development that typically would happen in early childhood.

A parent who is either abusive or neglectful may not be teaching the social and emotional skills that children will need in order to thrive. This can result in missed Social and Emotional Milestones that happen between birth and age five, when children typically enter school.

According to SAMSHA, some of the effects of childhood trauma that last into adulthood can include the following:

  • Learning problems, including lower grades and more suspensions and expulsions

  • Increased use of health and mental health services

  • Increase involvement with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems

  • Long-term health problems (e.g., diabetes and heart disease)

Today, many teachers, pediatricians, school counselors, and others who interact with children on a regular basis are trained to be aware of signs of childhood trauma. However, a decade (or two!) ago, this was rarely the case.

In my own childhood, for instance, I was always quiet and fearful in school and was just labeled as being 'shy' without any investigation into the cause of my shyness. Even when I had interactions with teachers, school counselors, and later the police, I was never asked the cause of my actions. It was just assumed that I was a selfish kid, who didn't care about hurting my parents.

Many of us in older generations have stories like this. Stories where there were signs of abuse or neglect (like kids being sent to school without clean clothes, smelling bad, with cuts or bruises, without a lunch, etc) that were never questioned by school authorities. No one ever asked us what was going on at home.

Having other authority figures seem to 'go along' with our parents could leave us feeling even more dejected as we reached our teens, and made us oftentimes distrusting of authority figures (who potentially could have provided help) and we didn't speak up for ourselves or talk about what went on at home. In our minds, that was normal.

Fortunately for today's children, trauma informed care is becoming more common, and teachers and others who children regularly come in contact with are becoming more aware of the signs of trauma in childhood. Hopefully, this can allow today's children to be able to heal much earlier in life than many of us find ourselves doing.

To Report Suspected Child Abuse

In the UK, If a child or young person needs confidential help and advice direct them to Childline. Calls to 0800 1111 are free and children can also contact Childline online or read about domestic abuse on the Childline website.

In the US, If you suspect child abuse, contact the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453).

You can find additional resources, including worldwide child hotline numbers on the Resources tab.

Were you traumatized as a child?

If you, like me, endured childhood trauma, you may just be realizing this in adulthood. You may have gone to therapy for anxiety, depression or relationship problems, and found out that you also have PTSD. Or, you may have come to suspicions on your own, through postings on social media networks, comments from friends or coworkers, or things that you have read.

Although I have CPTSD stemming originally from childhood abuse and neglect and was in and out of therapy as a teen, this was something that was never discussed. It wasn't until my early 30's as a domestic violence victim that I was formally diagnosed as having PTSD by a mental health professional.

According to Mental Health Center, here are some of the possible effects of childhood trauma that may appear in adulthood:

  1. Trust Issues: Childhood trauma, particularly if it was caused by a caregiver, can lead to trust issues. A person may find it difficult to believe that others have any good intentions, fearing they might be hurt or betrayed as they were in their childhood.

  2. Attachment Issues: Traumatic experiences in childhood can lead to insecure attachment styles in adulthood. This may manifest as a fear of abandonment, resulting in clinginess in relationships (anxious attachment), or as a fear of intimacy, leading to emotional detachment and self-isolation (avoidant attachment).

  3. Difficulty with Emotional Regulation: Childhood trauma can make it hard for an individual to manage their emotions effectively. This can lead to volatile relationships, with frequent emotional outbursts, or conversely, to emotional numbness and inability to express feelings.

  4. Low Self-Esteem: If a person has been traumatized in their early years, they might struggle with feelings of low self-worth. This can cause them to settle for unhealthy relationships, as they may feel they don’t deserve better.

  5. Communication Issues: Trauma in childhood can also impact a person’s ability to communicate their needs, desires, and feelings and to answer simple questions effectively. This can lead to misunderstanding and conflict in adult relationships.

  6. Fear of Rejection or Abandonment: Childhood trauma can instill a deep-seated fear of being rejected or abandoned. This fear might make it challenging for them to fully engage in a relationship, worrying that the other person will leave them.

  7. Physical Intimacy Problems: If the childhood trauma involved physical or sexual abuse, it could cause difficulties with physical intimacy in adult relationships.

If anything on this list sounds like you, then it is possible that you are suffering from PTSD or CPTSD due to experiencing childhood trauma. When you suspect that you have PTSD, it is important to seek out professional help from a trained trauma therapist. This is a professional who can help you to learn coping skills in adulthood to recover from your childhood trauma, and to thrive in life and relationships in the future.

Recovering from trauma

Recovery won't always be easy, but having a dedicated care team on your side can make a huge difference. For those of us who have experienced trauma, it often causes us to feel isolated and alone. Like we are living on the fringes of society. Finding a support system can help trauma survivors to develop positive relationships, and learn that there are people who are safe to trust.

The therapeutic relationship can help to provide a new, positive template for what healthy relationships can look like. Therapists are caring individuals who dedicate themselves to helping others, and they will listen to you and help you develop proper coping skills to move forward with your life.

In therapy, you can also address skill deficits that you may have from childhood. This means, you can learn now all the things that your parents never taught you as a child. These new skills can help to put you on a level playing field with other people your age.

One of the ways that you can learn important emotional skills through therapy is through doing Inner Child Work. This is an approach to therapy that allows you to work with the wounded child inside yourself, and learn how to be your own loving parent.

According to Better Up, participating in Inner Child Work can help you gain a greater level of self-awareness, and provides the following benefits:

  • Understanding how past trauma affects your present behavior

  • Developing healthy coping mechanisms

  • Reconnecting to passions, dreams, and talents you may have put aside

  • Feeling empowered and in control of your life

  • Improved emotional regulation 

  • Increased self-esteem, self-compassion, and compassion for others

In addition to participating in talk therapy, taking medications or attending EMDR therapy to reprocess your trauma, participating in Inner Child Work as a part of your healing journey can help you to learn skills that you never did in childhood. This allows you to become a happier and more whole person, with the skills needed to have positive relationships with yourself and others in the future.

For more resources on recovering from PTSD, you can check out the following resources:

As I know from my own experience, recovering from PTSD can be difficult, and you may find yourself in therapy for quite a long while. Other people often won't understand what you are going through, because they haven't experienced trauma themselves. You may face social stigma, as well as criticisms from friends and loved ones when you don't handle a situation the way that you would like to.

Breaking down our own mental barriers to receiving help can be difficult as well, since trusting others typically isn't a strong suit for those of us with PTSD. This is what makes a trusting therapeutic relation so crucial to healing. You don't have to be alone, or to be afraid anymore. There is help and hope out there for you. You can learn how to live life differently than you have in the past, and change limiting beliefs and attitudes that are holding you back.

If you have additional questions that you would like me to address here on the blog, let me know in the comments! I am always happy to provide whatever help I can.


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