6 Ways Childhood Trauma Impacts Adult Relationships

Childhood Trauma

Did you grow up feeling scared, neglected, or insecure? Was your family home filled with chaos, strife, or arguments? You may think you’ve outgrown those early days of uncertainty, but unfortunately, childhood trauma does not remain in childhood. It reverberates throughout our lives. These early exposures impact brain development and can lead to a host of issues later in life that create problems in adult relationships.

From choosing unhealthy partnerships to avoiding commitment, the wounds we carry from childhood can greatly interfere with our adult relationships. Here, we will explore some of these impacts, how they impact the brain, as well as various ways to address them so you can have happier relationships.

From choosing unhealthy partnerships to avoiding commitment completely, the wounds we carry from childhood can greatly interfere with our ability to thrive in adult relationships. Click To Tweet

THE IMPACTS OF ADVERSE CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES

A young brain, faced with various forms of trauma (especially on an ongoing or regular basis), is constantly being flooded with stress hormones. This is problematic because it interrupts normal brain function, ultimately leading to stunted growth in the brain in areas like the hippocampus, which deals with memory formation.

Indeed, studies have shown that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is associated with physical brain changes, including:

  • Reduced volume in the hippocampus and anterior cingulate
  • Heightened activity in the amygdala
  • Decreased activity in the frontal lobes

In addition, people with PTSD tend to produce higher levels of cortisol and norepinephrine in response to stress.

Ultimately, these constant stress responses—triggering a frequent “fight or flight” state—can impact everything from immune response to metabolic and cardiovascular functioning. Traumatized children may exhibit behavioral issues, including problems with emotional regulation, learning, social interactions, and aggression. They often struggle with creating healthy attachments later in life.

To help gauge the possible impact of various traumatic events, experts created a questionnaire about adverse childhood experiences or ACEs. The ACE test asks 10 questions to determine the level of trauma experienced before a child’s 18th birthday. This childhood trauma test explores topics such as:

  • Abuse (emotional, physical, and sexual)
  • Neglect (which can be just as damaging as more aggressive forms of abuse)
  • Problems within the household (such as substance abuse, suicide, or imprisonment among other family members)

There can be mitigating factors to help offset these events—for example, a loving relative or teacher present in the child’s life—and there can be additional traumas outside the home, like bullying in school. In general, higher ACE scores indicate exposure to more traumatic events and are associated with a higher risk of long-term health effects.

SYMPTOMS OF CHILDHOOD TRAUMA IN ADULTHOOD

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 6 adults report experiencing 4 or more types of ACEs. But the CDC also notes that reducing these events could help reduce the instances of a surprising array of negative outcomes:

  • Health conditions like depression, heart disease, cancer, and obesity
  • Risky behaviors like smoking and drinking alcohol
  • Socioeconomic challenges like unemployment and dropping out of school

This partial list gives us a glance at some of the many ways that childhood trauma can continue to wreak havoc long after the trauma has ended and throughout adulthood. The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies points out that the effects of childhood trauma in adults are:

  • Emotional, such as anxiety, worry, shame, guilt, grief, anger, helplessness, and hopelessness
  • Mental, including depression, suicide, self-harm, PTSD, substance abuse, and relationship issues
  • Physical, such as sleep difficulties, lower immune function, and problems with emotional regulation

CHILDHOOD TRAUMA CASE STUDY: ABBY RAO

Recently, influencer Abby Rao appeared on an episode of Scan My Brain with Dr. Daniel Amen. As a child and teenager, she experienced mental abuse from certain family members—a stressor so intense that she recalls having suicidal thoughts by 13 years old.

Now an adult, she had recently made positive lifestyle changes, such as quitting alcohol and adopting a healthier diet, and was curious about her childhood trauma’s long-term impacts on her brain.

Dr. Amen detailed the problem: Trauma from childhood can feel just as alive in adulthood—it sets up shop in your brain and stays there, and we retain memories of ourselves at all ages. If we don’t manage or overcome trauma, our younger selves can take over and try to run the show whenever we’re “triggered.” It’s not surprising that this can greatly affect all of our relationships.

Based on a database of roughly 225,000 brain SPECT scans at Amen Clinics, specific patterns of activity appear in people who have experienced trauma. For example, Rao’s brain scan revealed a diamond pattern, a common marker of trauma. People with the diamond pattern tend to have symptoms such as excessive worry, rumination (going over and over a thought in your head), or a tendency to get upset in the face of adversity. This can lead to anxious and sad feelings over time.

Seeing the diamond pattern on a brain scan can be very helpful for people like Rao who experienced childhood trauma. “I feel really validated….I was told for so many years that nothing happened, so just to have that validation means a lot,” Rao says. “I’m so determined to undo what’s been done and let other people know that they can undo it, and also just how serious it is. It’s real.”

6 WAYS CHILDHOOD TRAUMA AFFECTS ADULT RELATIONSHIPS

With these far-reaching kinds of issues, it’s no wonder that many adults who have experienced childhood trauma also find that their adult relationships are marred by negative patterns. For example, one study indicated that children with trauma are more likely to “experience distrust, feel distant from others, and develop an insecure attachment style.”

In addition, an increased risk for mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, and alcohol dependence, compounds negative impacts on relationships of all kinds.

These findings echo earlier research that noted childhood trauma and mistreatment were more likely to affect relationships for both males and females. “Male and female abuse and neglect victims reported higher rates of cohabitation, walking out, and divorce,” the researchers stated. “Abused and neglected females were also less likely than female controls to have positive perceptions of current romantic partners and to be sexually faithful.”

Sadly, childhood trauma may appear in many more ways when the victim enters a relationship in adulthood. Responses and patterns can include:

  1. Resisting intimacy or commitment.
  2. Harboring a deep fear of abandonment.
  3. Starting fights, or avoiding conflict at all costs.
  4. Choosing abusive partners (to mimic the treatment they received in childhood).
  5. Remaining isolated and avoiding relationships altogether.
  6. Codependency, which focuses on “fixing,” or finding one’s own identity in, a partner.

HELP FOR OVERCOMING CHILDHOOD TRAUMA

There is hope for people who have been impacted by childhood trauma, even in their adult years. Helpful strategies include:

These steps can help pave the way for creating and maintaining healthier relationships for years to come.

Emotional trauma, depression, and other mental health problems can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, remote clinical evaluations, and video therapy for adults, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

2 Comments »

  1. We have a 20 yr old grandson who was bullied all through grade school. He dropped out of college, lives in his room, & is a dragon Master. He is sick (stomach & sinus issues )all the time .

    My daughter in law also has the same sick” constantl”.issue. I fear it is a learned behavior as well as an inherited genetic one.

    Grandson Rarely participates in family birthdays, other family events. He uses his stomach distress or sinus issues as excuse. He has few friends. Most are on line (long distance ) friends.

    He see s counselor weekly & has seen him for many years. I Don’t see much benefit,
    however, his mother LOVES his counselor & won’t discuss trying someone else. Supposedly, counselor thinks my son is problem. My son has decided to stay totally out of situation. Now my daughter in law is experiencing the same refusal to try school, etc. that my son experienced.

    I would like his parents & grandson to consider trying a different counselor who knows some other approach.

    My son (father) agrees, but he won’t oppose his wife (daughter in law) . Daughter in law is the decision maker in the family.

    My husband & I are very distressed over this situation. We realize that our worrying about our grandson won’t change anything. We don’t have the type of relationship with our daughter in law which would allow our discussing this & our concerns. She would simply tell us it’s none of our business.

    Do you have any suggestions?

    Comment by Shirley — July 12, 2023 @ 4:17 PM

  2. excellent post!

    Comment by Doug Morris — July 13, 2023 @ 2:42 PM

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