5 Routes Via Which Childhood Trauma Harms Us - Childhood Trauma Recovery %

5 Routes Via Which Childhood Trauma Harms Us

There Are Five Main Routes Through Which Childhood Trauma Harms Us :

Above : Neuroimage showing difference between the brain of an individual who has suffered abuse and a ‘normal’ brain.

Childhood trauma can affect us :



– biologically

The damage done by the experience of childhood trauma may manifest itself in a variety of ways; these include :

– our ability to emotionally regulate (i.e. our ability to control our emotions)

– extreme anxiety

– high degree of impulsiveness (acting without thinking through the consequences, implications and ramifications)

– sleep disturbance including insomnia, nightmares/night-terrors and, sometimes, an excessive need to sleep

severe depression

personality disorders

(N.B. the above list is by no means exclusive)

In this article, I want to look at the various routes through which the experience of childhood trauma adversely impacts on us; these have been identified as the following :

– emotional

– behavioural

– cognitive

– social

– biological

1) THE EMOTIONAL ROUTE : If, as a child, we were unable to rely upon our primary caregiver to console and soothe us when we were under psychological duress, research strongly indicates that we become incapable of effectively dealing with stress as adults (assuming there has been no therapeutic intervention). We lack the ability to self-soothe and therefore find we are highly reactive and sensitive to stress as adults, to the degree that it may engulf and overwhelm us. The extreme emotional problems that we may find ourselves having to deal with as adults (often, most unsuccessfully) have been documented by various researchers (e.g Van Der Horst et al., 2008).

It has also been demonstrated (e.g Bowlby, 1988) that a failure to establish a healthy emotional bond with the primary caregiver as children often leads to us experiencing significant difficulties with forming and maintaining relationships in our adult life. Indeed, we may find that our adult relationships are full of conflict and disruption (Henderson, 2006).

Bowlby’s extensive research on the vital importance of our experience of early relationships with caregivers to how we form (or fail to form) relationships as adults has clearly indicated that we INTERNALIZE OUR EARLY RELATIONSHIPS;  it is this psychological process that affects how we relate to others later on in life. In other words, the DYSFUNCTIONAL ATTACHMENT STYLE we had with our primary caregiver in childhood repeats itself in the relationships we form in adulthood. In essence, OUR ADULT RELATIONSHIPS WILL TEND TO MIRROR OUR EARLY, PROBLEMATIC RELATIONSHIP WITH OUR PRIMARY CAREGIVER.

Bowlby described three types of dysfunctional attachment style (i.e ways of relating to others) we may develop as adults due to our adverse early experiences; these are :




Let’s look at each of these in turn:

a) AMBIVALENT ATTACHMENT – If we develop this dysfunctional attachment style as adults it is likely that the parenting we received was inconsistent and emotionally negligent – often, the parent’s emotional responsiveness to the child has been intermittent at best; the result of this tends to be that the child will intensely cling to the parent on the rare occasion s/he is available in order to attempt to compensate for when s/he is not and to, as it were, ‘make the most of it.’

In adulthood, as a consequence of the above, the individual may become extremely ‘clingy’, obsessive and dependent in connection to relationships. S/he may, too, become excessively angry and/or upset in response to perceived rejection.

b) AVOIDANT ATTACHMENT – If, as children, the parenting we received was hostile, rejecting and cold, we may learn not to approach others for emotional support for fear of meeting with more painful rejection. As adults, we may become obsessively self-reliant, dislike intimacy and view others as hostile and essentially unreliable. Underlying this, there may well be feelings of anxiety, depression and general emotional distress which we dare not confide in others about and attempt to keep hidden (e.g Alexander and Anderson, 1994).

c) DISORGANIZED ATTACHMENT – Generally, this dysfunctional attachment style has been found to have its origin in the early experience in which the child is frightened of interactions with the primary caregiver. However, no matter how afraid of the primary caregiver the child might be, s/he must, by necessity, interact with him/her and, for psychological protection, develops coping strategies to do so; a prime example of such a coping mechanism is dissociation (click here to read my article on dissociation).

Following such childhood experiences, s/he may grow up to be an adult who views him/herself (erroneously) as irredeemiably bad and (also erroneously) as responsible for the trauma s/he experienced as a child. As an adult, too, as a result of the traumatic childhood, social adjustment is frequently impaired and feelings of depression and distress are likely to predominate.

THE BEHAVIOURAL ROUTE : Our adverse childhood experiences (eg rejection, betrayal, abuse) often lead us to develop counter-productive coping mechanisms to attempt to deal with our distress in adult life; in turn, these dysfunctional coping mechanisms are likely to adversely impact on our physical health; examples include :


excessive drinking

– illicit drug use


high risk sexual activity (ie unprotected, promiscuous sex)


Essentially, we adopt these behaviours in order to psychologically dissociate from our all too painful reality (click here to read my post on dissociation).

Unfortunately, in addition to the fact that these behaviours can lead to physical illness, our reliance upon them also PREVENTS US FROM LEARNING MORE EFFECTIVE COPING STRATEGIES.

3 THE COGNITIVE ROUTE : The term ‘cognitive’ relates to how we think about things; for example, the attitudes and beliefs which, in large part, determine our day-to-day behaviour. As I have written about fairly extensively in other posts, the experience of childhood trauma often results in us developing a cognitive negative bias towards ;

– ourselves

– other people

– the world in general

This three-way despairing outlook has been termed ‘THE NEGATIVE COGNITIVE TRIAD’ and is one of the main hallmarks of clinical depression. We tend, for example, to (completely erroneously) blame ourselves for the trauma that we suffered and this prevents us from developing good self-esteem or a cohesive and positive self-identity (eg Kralik, 2005).

If, as children, we were in a more or less perpetual state of stress, it is likely that we frequently experienced the ‘fight/flight response’ as a reaction to frightening stimuli. If this occurred frequently enough, and over a long enough period, such a response may well have become DEEPLY INGRAINED INTO OUR PERSONALITY – we become conditioned to respond in this way (beyond our conscious control) whenever we feel threatened.

Therefore, as an adult, we may, for example, frequently react with extreme anger which seems, to an objective observer, as both excessive and inappropriate. However, such rage occurs because the (even very small) threats we experience in adulthood remind us (usually on an unconscious level) of the threats we experienced as children – thus the response which was conditioned into us over long years of suffering in childhood is triggered.

THE SOCIAL ROUTE : We have seen in previous posts how childhood trauma can lead us to experience extreme difficulties in relation to our personal relationships in adult life (eg – click here). As a result, we may, as adults, find we have little social support – in turn, a lack of social support and close personal relationships has been shown (eg Draper et al., 2007) to be associated with poor physical and mental health. Indeed, Tucker (1999) carried out research showing that our social environment is more important in relation to our mental health than our physical environment.

5 THE BIOLOGICAL ROUTE : Chronic stress in childhood can adversely affect our neurological development, and, therefore, we are more likely to develop neuropsychiatric conditions as adults (click here to read a previous post I wrote on this).

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).