Psychotic Symptoms In Adolescence Linked To Childhood Trauma

A recent study (Upthegrove et al.) has shown that individuals who have experienced significant childhood trauma are far more likely to experience early (ie during adolescence) symptoms of psychosis than those fortunate enough to have experienced a relatively stable childhood.

The study involved over 200 young people and focused upon the effects on these individuals’ mental health of the following categories of childhood trauma:

1) Physical abuse

2) Sexual abuse

3) The witnessing of domestic violence

4) Bullying

In order to find out if there was a relationship between these kinds of childhood trauma and the early development of psychotic symptoms, interviews were conducted with each of the participants in the study.

Let’s look at the effects on the mental health of each of these four types of abuse:

1) Effects of physical abuse: those who had been physically abused were found to be at much greater risk of developing early signs of psychosis than those who had not had traumatic childhoods

2) Effects of sexual abuse: those who had been sexually abused were not found to be of significantly higher risk of developing early signs of psychosis than those who had not had a traumatic childhood. However, this finding might have been due to methodological shortcomings of the study

3) The witnessing of domestic violence: those who had been exposed and subjected to the witnessing of domestic violence within their household were found to be of much greater risk of developing early signs of psychosis than those who had not had traumatic childhoods

4) Effects of being bullied: those who had been significantly bullied were not found to be at increased risk of developing early signs of psychosis.

However, these individuals were found to be significantly more likely than those who had had a more settled childhood to become bullies themselves.

This finding could be due to:

a) modelling their behaviour on the behaviour of the person who was physically abusing them.

b) modelling their behaviour on that of the perpetrator of the domestic violence they were exposed to witnessing in the home

c) genetic reasons – for example, if they had a violent father who physically abused them they may have inherited a set of genes that predisposed them to behave aggressively and violently

d) a need to express control/power – if these individuals felt powerless at home due to being physically abused, they may have developed the need to express power over others in order to ‘psychologically compensate’ themselves/feel less powerless/gain the control they lacked at home


In all, 6.6% of the original 200+ studied had psychotic symptoms, mainly visual and auditory hallucinations (seeing and hearing things in the absence of corresponding external stimuli – ie things that weren’t there).

Compared to those who had had relatively stable childhoods:

  • those who had been physically abused were 6x more likely to have experienced early psychotic symptoms.
  •  those who had witnessed domestic violence were 10x more likely to have experienced early psychotic symptoms.


Comorbid conditions:

Those who had developed early psychotic symptoms due to childhood trauma were also more likely to have other mental health problems alongside these (psychologists often refer to these as comorbid conditions). These included:

  • depression
  • conduct disorder
  • phobias
  • ADHD
  • PTSD
  • nervous tic
  • over anxiousness
  • oppositional defiance disorder
  • separation and anxiety order

Males were more at risk of developing early psychotic symptoms than females.

How Does Childhood Trauma Make A Young Person More At Risk Of Developing Early Signs And Symptoms Of Psychosis?

Experts now believe the experience of significant childhood trauma can adversely affect the biological development of the brain.

Specifically, prolonged exposure to significant stress in childhood can adversely affect:

  • structure of the brain
  • biology/chemistry of the brain
  • and, as a result, its functionality of the brain

For example, prolonged stress can affect the production in the brain of the hormones known as adrenalin and catecholamine (involved in the body’s stress/threat response; often referred to as the fight/flight response) and interfere with the physical development of a structure in the brain known as the amygdala (also involved in regulating how the individual responds to stress/perceived threat).


This study supports an already vast quantity of research that shows a link between childhood trauma and the development of mental illness (in this case, psychosis).




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



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