How does substantial childhood trauma impact a victim’s adulthood?

No matter how old, childhood trauma can influence your wellbeing far into adulthood. The long-term impacts of trauma in adolescence can seem subtle, yet they can affect someone’s quality of life, their mental and physical health, their interpersonal relationships, and their relationship with themselves in detrimental ways.

They struggle to form a ‘real’ self

Children who are abused or neglected may develop an emotional persona when around their abusers, perhaps to be loved or liked by their abusers (such as a gay child covering up their queerness after being sent to conversion therapy). Or, maybe to survive without conflict in a neglectful household (such as a child stuffing their negative emotions so as not to spark conflict between family members).

As they become young adults, they may struggle to break the false persona they grew up hidden within. After all, if it has helped them survive in an abusive situation, their brains won’t quickly give up that survival tactic. They still may subconsciously believe it is necessary to play a false role be safe, or have been playing the role too long to connect to their genuine selves.

It may cause them to experience a crisis in their identity, particularly if they are unable to unlearn the coping behavior of swallowing their emotions. Since our emotions shape our personalities, they may feel that they are lacking in their sense of self. They may also try out other personas in adulthood, or revert to their false persona in situations of stress, causing them to frequently detach from their honest selves.

 

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They live in passivity and victimhood

Many children who experience trauma or neglect develop the idea that they must be passive and non-confrontational to be loveable. They may recognize anger as a solely negative emotion with no beneficial role in their lives. While this type of thinking may keep them physically and emotionally safe in a long-term situation of abuse, they can carry the concept of passivity over into adulthood, struggling to be assertive, confident, and/or ask for their needs to be met.

Childhood trauma victims also typically experience long term feelings of shame, worry, guilt, and sadness. This can interfere with their dreams, goals, and ambitions. They might have dreams that they don’t feel they deserve, or they may feel that are too weak to accomplish their goals. As a result, they doom themselves to a headspace of victimhood, unable to see themselves as purposeful and noteworthy people beyond their suffering.

Many children who experience trauma or neglect develop the idea that they must be passive and non-confrontational to be loveable.

This pairing of passivity and victimhood can keep a trauma victim from exploring their full potential in adulthood. After all, when children are in situations of abuse or neglect, they must focus on surviving instead of dreaming. Holding onto this ideal beyond their traumatic experiences can cause them to lose touch with what they want to do with their futures beyond surviving to witness them.

Their physical and emotional health suffers

The physical symptoms of trauma can be equally as destructive as the emotional ones. Children who have experienced trauma are at risk for developing a heightened stress response: a symptom that often accompanies PTSD. As a result, they may struggle to sleep, experience joint and muscle pain from their stress, and be more at risk for chronic illnesses such as heart disease.

Additionally, many childhood trauma survivors become victims of their own minds after escaping their abusers.

Childhood victims of trauma are more prone to developing mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, OCD, and eating disorders. Eating disorders are the deadliest mental illness, causing metabolic disturbances, organ failure, and suicidal tendencies in their victims. Depression and anxiety disorders can also lead to significant suicidal behavior years after the trauma and/or abuse has occurred.

If you’re suffering from the long-term effects of trauma, attending trauma-based therapy can help you face your abuse/neglect, develop healthier coping strategies, and become a healthier, happier adult.

A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101:

The traumas you sustained in the past can have a long-term impact on your health.

These are the signs and symptoms of the trauma-based mental illness, PTSD.