The effects of childhood trauma don’t come to an end when a traumatized child enters adulthood. In fact, childhood trauma can continue to have significant effects throughout life, impacting daily functioning and relationships with others. However, healing is possible. In this article, we will explore just how childhood trauma affects victims – both in childhood and adulthood — and how faith can give hope during the recovery journey.
Childhood Trauma Defined
There are lots of ways to define trauma, but the official definition in the most recent edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5) is exposure to “actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 271). The types of traumatic events covered by this definition include:
- Exposure to war
- Threatened/actual physical attack, including robbery/mugging
- Threatened/actual sexual assault, including sexual trafficking, drug-facilitated sex, and non-contact sexual abuse
- Exposure to a terrorist attack
- Being held hostage
- Incarceration as a prisoner of war
- Experiencing a natural disaster
- Severe motor vehicle accidents
- Developmentally inappropriate sexual experiences (in children only), including being exposed to porn or being forced to watch sexual behavior
- Being a witness to life-threatening events
- Being a witness to sexual or physical abuse of another person
Previously, things like “a threat to one’s physical integrity” (APA, 2000, p. 463) were included in the DSM, but in DSM 5 these were removed. Similarly, terminal illness is no longer classified as trauma in DSM 5.
While some aspects of trauma were removed from DSM 5, additional details for how trauma affects children under the age of six were added as part of the diagnostic criteria for “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder for Children 6 Years and Younger”, because it’s been recognized that very young children are affected by trauma differently than older children and adults.
Symptoms of Childhood Trauma
Both young children and older children are significantly affected by exposure to traumatic events, although the symptoms they experience as a result can be different. Children over the age of six generally experience the same type of symptoms that adults experience after a traumatic experience.
Due to being at a different developmental stage, young children experience symptoms differently, particularly if they are not able to verbalize their feelings, fears, and experiences. Young children tend to re-experience their trauma through play rather than through flashbacks, for example.
There are some common symptoms of childhood trauma, however. These include:
- Repetitive play in which themes/aspects of the traumatic experience are expressed
- Distressing nightmares about the traumatic experience
- Reenactment of the trauma during play
- Persistent negative thoughts about the world, others, and themselves
- A persistent state of fear, shame, horror, anger, guilt
- Loss of interest in activities
- Irritable behavior and/or outbursts of anger
- Reckless behavior
- Sleep difficulties
- Intense psychological distress when ‘triggered’ by people/places/things that remind one of the child of the trauma
- Easily startled
- Physical response to triggers, including dizziness, rapid heart rate
- Developmental regression (e.g. loss of language)
Long-Term Effects of Childhood Trauma
Sadly, perhaps the most common type of childhood trauma for girls is sexual abuse, while boys are more likely to be victims of physical abuse. Up to 20% of men and women admit to having experienced abuse-related childhood trauma and it’s undeniable that their lives have been significantly affected by their experiences
When a child experiences trauma – particularly the repetitive trauma of childhood abuse – their experiences can actually rewire their brains into negative and self-destructive patterns of thinking and behavior. Abuse, for example, can lead children to internalize false beliefs about what happened to them, thinking that it was their fault or they deserved it. Naturally, this kind of thinking leads to low self-esteem, low self-worth, depression, persistent guilt, and shame.
Children’s brains are still developing when they experience childhood trauma, so the impact of trauma in childhood can have more long-term effects than trauma experienced in adulthood. A child who experiences sexual abuse may grow up to fear all kinds of intimacy, be fearful of other people, and have difficulties maintaining relationships.
One of the biggest long-term effects of childhood trauma is the way that it impacts a child’s view of the world. If a child experiences a terrorist attack, they may develop a long-term belief that the world is dangerous, causing severe anxiety and difficulties in daily life, such as holding down a job or socializing in public spaces.
Childhood trauma can affect a child’s ability to manage their own needs, cause them to develop unhealthy coping mechanisms such as binge eating, and because they have lost some (or all) of the innocence of childhood, they may develop psychological walls that they use to protect themselves from further harm. These behaviors continue into adulthood, affecting the quality of life considerably.
Trauma and Recovery: Healing Through Faith in God
Trauma and recovery are often thought of as being polar opposites. Children who have experienced trauma often grow up to be fearful, damaged adults who struggle to even imagine a different way of life. Especially when trauma happens at an incredibly young age, victims of childhood trauma cannot remember a time before the trauma, so their view of the world is entirely colored by what happened to them. That’s inevitable, but it doesn’t have to remain that way.
The Christian Gospel tells a story of hope and paints a picture of a different world to the one that victims of childhood trauma experienced. There are so many ways that the story of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit can set a traumatized person on the road to healing and recovery. For example:
- For the child who was sexually and physically abused by his father from a young age, the Christian story paints a picture of Father God who cares for His children, who covers them with His wings (Psalm 91:4), protects them from danger (Isaiah 43:1), and runs to embrace them no matter what (Luke 15:20).
- For the child who was caught up in a terrorist attack and watched her mother die, there is the reassurance in God’s Word that for those who accept God as their Father, the pain and suffering of the fallen world is only temporary:
I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” – Revelation 21:3-4
- The Christian story portrays the Holy Trinity as a source of strength and encouragement, to whom you can turn in any situation for comfort and reassurance. Not only that, but when you feel that no one cares about your pain, and you feel completely alone, the Bible shows the depths of God’s compassion: “Then Jesus wept.” (John 11:35).
It’s not easy to change the beliefs and thought patterns that have controlled your life since childhood, however. Victims of childhood trauma effectively have to rewire their brains in order to experience healing and recovery. In recent years, scientists have written extensively about neuroplasticity, which refers to the way that the human brain can be rewired.
Christian neuroscientist Dr. Caroline Leaf has written several books about how Christians (and non-Christians, of course) can replace negative and unhealthy thinking patterns with positive and healthy thought patterns in order to rewire the neural pathways in the brain. This is not, of course, the same as that old, unhelpful adage to “think positive”. We’re talking here about consciously working to challenge false, negative, and unhealthy beliefs and thoughts.
An effective way of doing this is to take the negative thought or belief and test it against the truth of the Bible. For every negative thought, for example, you can question “what does the Bible/Jesus/God say about this?” This Christian approach can be more effective than traditional thought-challenging processes that don’t have the same source of authority (i.e. they’re not looking to the Word of God for the truth).
It can be difficult to embark on this healing journey alone, however. That’s why it can be really helpful to seek out a Christian counselor who’s experienced in childhood trauma. Not only does Christian counseling offer the space to talk about traumatic experiences in a safe and non-judgmental way, but it also brings God into the middle of the healing journey.
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