Common sense tells us that our earliest experiences have a significant role in shaping who we are. However, only recently have studies shown us the extent to which early childhood abuse, neglect, and/or trauma are linked to lasting emotional, psychological, behavioral, and physical effects.
The lasting effects of early childhood trauma
A landmark study of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) investigated 9,508 adults with the aim of measuring the effects of early childhood trauma. The study looked at emotional, psychological, and physical effects of the abuse and how these early experiences may have impacted these individuals in adulthood.
Questions were asked concerning direct trauma such as physical and sexual abuse, and indirect trauma such as witnessing violence against the mother, or having a family member who abused substances or was mentally ill, suicidal, or been imprisoned.
Lasting emotional effects
Difficulties in relationships
The outcome of abuse varies widely from person to person. However, many adults who endured abuse or neglect have low self-esteem and experience more fear and anxiety compared to those who have not experienced abuse. In addition, adults who suffered past abuse often have difficulty trusting others and are more likely to have problems in their relationships. This is not surprising as our early experiences teach us how relationships work. This is when we learn whether we can rely on others or expect them to hurt or betray us.
Mental health disorders
High rates of depression and anxiety are common among adults who experienced childhood abuse. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is also common, as well as higher rates of suicide and suicide attempts. Feelings of ongoing guilt, shame, anger, and horror associated with past abuse can continue into adulthood. This also leads to irritability and difficulty controlling negative emotions.
Difficulty with emotion regulation
We are not born with the ability to manage our emotions and mood. During childhood, we learn these skills with the help of supportive and caring adults. For example, infants and small children are dependent on the adult to comfort them when scared, ill, or upset. It is not within the infant’s ability to control the fight or flight response and calm themselves when distressed. An adult who soothes the child and brings them back to a feeling of calm and security is essential.
Without this comfort and care, children, especially those who are very young, are at a loss as to how to make themselves feel better when upset or stressed. This basic function is highlighted in early attachment research, where the absence of support leads to lasting effects on the child’s ability to cope with negative emotion and stress.
Difficulty with emotion management often leads to poor health behaviors in adulthood. To deal with stress or negative emotion, many adults end up reaching for substances, alcohol, or food in order to feel better during stressful times.
It’s never too late to get treatment. While the research looks dismal for those who have endured early abuse, therapy and treatment can help you heal from past trauma. On a neurological level, your brain is capable of change throughout your entire life. This means you can learn coping skills that are healthy rather than damaging to your health. Additionally, a supportive therapeutic environment can give you the support you need and help bring you to a place of healing and wellbeing.
There are many approaches to assist those who have suffered early trauma. If you or someone you know is struggling, one-on-one therapy with a professional who understands can help you move forward into a happier, healthier future.
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