Childhood Trauma: Understanding How Trauma Impacts Mental Health and Wellness

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A therapist meets with a young patient.

As much as parents try to shield their children from all kinds of frightening, dangerous or life-threatening events, the reality is that these things can still happen. Even when children aren’t physically imperiled, they may still struggle with mental and emotional trauma, which can sometimes stay with them for the duration of their lives. Children living through the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, may experience trauma from being pulled out of school, being separated from friends or family members, and worrying about contracting the virus.

Childhood trauma is more common than most people imagine. In fact, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) estimates that two-thirds of all children report some kind of traumatic incident by age 16. These occurrences can lead to complicated mental health issues, but thankfully, treatment options are available to help patients of all ages deal with the lingering effects of their childhood


What Is Childhood Trauma?

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) defines a traumatic event as any scary, dangerous or violent event that poses a threat to the physical safety, well-being, or bodily integrity of a child. Sometimes, traumatic events may directly involve the child. Other times, the event involves the parent, guardian, or another caregiver. Threats to the physical safety of a loved one may be just as traumatic as direct threats to the child.

These experiences can trigger strong physical and emotional responses, which may persist long after the event passes. Some children develop child traumatic stress: a visceral response to childhood trauma that may affect their daily lives and emotional well-being for years or even decades after the triggering event.

Types of Childhood Trauma

A child may experience a number of potentially traumatic events, including the following:

  • Abuse (sexual, physical, psychological)
  • Life-threatening accidents or illnesses
  • Violence in school or the community
  • Bullying
  • Domestic violence (witnessing or experiencing)
  • National disasters
  • Acts of terror
  • Public health crises such as COVID-19
  • Loss of a loved one, especially when sudden or violent in nature
  • Refugee or war experiences
  • Neglect

Signs of Childhood Trauma

Parents, teachers, and medical providers should be alert to the signs and symptoms of childhood trauma. These signs can vary according to the age of the child.

Signs of Childhood Trauma in Preschool Children

  • Fear of separation from parents or guardians
  • Nightmares
  • Poor eating habits and sudden weight loss
  • Persistent cries or screams

Signs of Childhood Trauma in Elementary Schoolchildren

  • Having feelings of guilt and shame
  • Becoming fearful or anxious
  • Having sleeping problems
  • Having difficulty concentrating

Signs of Childhood Trauma in Middle and High School Children

  • Depression
  • Feelings of alienation
  • Eating disorders
  • Self-harming behaviors

Additional Resources on the Types and Signs of Childhood Trauma

For more information on childhood trauma and its triggers and signs, consider the following resources:

How Childhood Trauma Impacts Mental Health and Wellness

Each traumatic experience is unique, and thus childhood trauma impacts its victims in different ways. With that said, traumatic experiences can often have effects on a child that linger through adolescence and adulthood.

Developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Most children are exposed to a traumatic event at some point, and while these incidents usually result in at least momentary distress, some children return to normal functioning within a short time. In the most extreme cases, however, a traumatic event can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to the National Center for PTSD, up to 15% of girls and 6% of boys develop PTSD following a traumatic event.

PTSD is a mental health condition that can impact children in different ways. Some children find themselves replaying the traumatic incident in their minds, relieving the stress and agony. Others reenact the traumatic incident in their play. Still, others avoid any person or situation that might remind them of their trauma. Some children may also believe that they missed warning signs about the traumatic incident and therefore become hypervigilant to the point of obsession.

Children with PTSD may experience a range of symptoms, including the following:

  • Anger and increased aggression
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Mistrust of others
  • Fear
  • Alienation
  • Low self-image
  • Self-harming behaviors

Other Effects of Childhood Trauma

Even children who don’t exhibit the signs of PTSD can still struggle with various behavioral issues following a traumatic event. Some examples are:

  • Anger
  • Difficulty focusing or paying attention
  • Changes in eating habits
  • New fears or phobias
  • Increased obsession with safety
  • Increased focus on death and dying
  • Insomnia and fitful sleeping
  • Loss of interest in usual hobbies and activities

When left untreated, childhood trauma can have effects that last into adulthood.

  • According to Psychology Today, traumatic experiences “can burrow down deep into the body, contributing to chronic illness.” Data from a 2019 survey showed a strong correlation between unresolved trauma and the risk of cancer.
  • Childhood trauma that involves sexual abuse can lead to long-term sexual dysfunction, including a higher likelihood of sexually risky behaviors.
  • Trauma can also lead to long-term cognitive difficulties and academic challenges. Children who have gone through trauma “may show deficits in language development and abstract reasoning skills,” says the NCTSN. “Many children who have experienced complex trauma have learning difficulties that may require support in the academic environment.”

Additional Resources on the Mental Health Effects of Childhood Trauma

To learn more about the link between childhood trauma and mental health and wellness, consider these resources:

Strategies for Addressing Childhood Trauma

While the effects of childhood trauma can be long-lasting, multiple strategies are available to those who’ve experienced trauma, allowing them to address their trauma, recover from it and live a healthy life. Mental health professionals, including psychiatric nurse practitioners, can work with their patients to identify the best recovery strategies.


One way to deal with childhood trauma is to speak with a counselor or therapist. Those who’ve gone through trauma often internalize blame and guilt, potentially leading to low self-esteem. A counselor can help patients allocate blame more judiciously, develop the skill sets required for self-compassion, and learn other skills to grapple with weighty or complicated emotions.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Following a traumatic episode, children sometimes develop negative behavioral or emotional responses as a way to cope with their trauma. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based approach to unlearning these negative responses, training the brain to deal with trauma, stress, and grief in a healthier, more productive way.


Mindfulness meditation may not be the best solution for everyone, but in some cases, it can provide an opportunity to increase present-moment awareness, as opposed to constantly dwelling on the past. Additionally, mindfulness meditation may increase self-compassion and also improve the individual’s ability to self-regulate (that is, the ability to keep one’s emotions in check).


In some cases, a psychiatric nurse practitioner or other medical professional may recommend medications to help cope with some of the effects of childhood trauma. Antianxiety medications and antidepressants may both be viable options, depending on the patient’s specific symptoms.

Additional Resources on Strategies for Recovering from Childhood Trauma

To find out more about the best ways to deal with childhood trauma, take a look at the following resources:

Resources on Childhood Trauma

For children and the parents of children who’ve experienced traumatic events, the following resources may provide insight, support and clinical solutions:

Moving Forward from Trauma

Traumatic incidents are all too common and can have long-lasting effects on the children who experience them. The right intervention from a mental health professional, however, makes it possible not only to move forward from trauma but also to live a healthy, fulfilling life.