Childhood Trauma

Childhood trauma can be linked to certain problems later in life

Childhood Trauma


Childhood trauma survivors are likely to have experienced prolonged, repetitive episodes of abuse and neglect - possibly, including sexual abuse. Often, they experience these things alone. Frequently, the perpetrator of a child's distress is also their primary caregiver(s). The child may have been threatened with punishment if they ever spoke up about the abuse. Such children often grow up in an environment filled with secrecy, pain and fear.  


A child, when compared to the adult(s) abusing them, is small and powerless.  Normally, when we feel threatened, the 'fight-or-flight' response kicks in. In this mode, our brains and bodies go into overdrive, enabling us to fight the aggressor or run away. Children living in abusive homes experience the effects of the fight-or-flight response regularly.

However, a child may not be able to fight or escape. Instead, they do the third element of a fight-or-flight response: they freeze. So, despite the body's response to stress hormones, such as adrenaline, the child must endure the situation and stay where they are.

For many children, the only way to cope with the abuse is to withdraw from reality and go to another part of their minds. This is sometimes known as dissociation. They may also retreat into fantasy worlds where bad things happen to other children and not to them.

Dissociating is a very effective and potentially life-saving strategy in the face of danger. However, in adulthood, the sufferer may still experience the tendency to dissociate when stressed. As an adult, dissociation can manifest as momentary lapses of attention or withdrawal from a conversation. It can even result in prolonged 'fugue' states, in which the individual is unable to hear or see what is going on around them.


People who undergo trauma as children may experience cognitive deficits or difficulties in their thought processes. They are also susceptible to depression, relationship difficulties, obesity, addiction and self-harm. Therefore, the potential cost to individuals—and human society—of childhood trauma is monumental.

In recent decades, neuroscience, combined with research into how human beings form attachment relationships, has begun to explore how such traumatic experiences might affect the developing brains of children. When faced with distressing, dangerous situations, our brains are more likely to dissociate or shut down. 

An important area that shuts down is a part of the rational brain called the frontal lobe. The frontal lobe allows us to put feelings into words, locate ourselves in space and time, and interpret the stimuli we receive from outside. As a result of trauma, the emotional brain takes over. However, the emotional brain is not thought to be under our conscious control and is unable to communicate using words.

As a result of all this disruption, trauma memories are not stored in the brain in the same way as normal memories. Instead, trauma memories remain in the brain as emotional or sensory fragments like images, sounds, smells and feelings. Therefore, triggering trauma memories can leave a person feeling panicked but without a coherent story that remembers precisely why. 


The World Health Organization (WHO) classified complex childhood trauma as a significant mental health difficulty in 2018.

Childhood trauma has all three characteristics of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The hallmarks of PTSD are trauma memories, a need to numb or avoid upsetting memories and constant hypervigilance.

Additionally, survivors of childhood trauma also often experience difficulty regulating their emotions, have a negative self-image and find it difficult to maintain relationships.

There are a number of methods that are thought to be helpful for people who have been traumatized children. These methods include reclaiming the body,  learning how to self-regulate, communicate and love yourself.

  1. Reclaiming the body: For many survivors of childhood trauma, the body has been the site of trauma. Regaining control of the body—and enjoying what it can do—can, in itself, be a healing process. 

  2. Learning how to self-regulate:  It can be a challenge knowing how to calm yourself down when things get stressful if you haven’t had a reliably comforting presence in your life to teach you. Keeping a mood journal, practising breathing/mindful relaxation techniques, or simply talking to a friend or therapist can all aid self-regulation.

  3. Learning to communicate: When someone feels safe enough to do so, re-telling trauma memories is a technique in which the survivor and their therapist work together narratively to describe what happened. This helps store this information as a coherent story in a person’s memory. This is done in tandem with helping the person deal with the complex emotions this process and the memories of what happened might evoke.  In therapy, it might also be possible to re-imagine and alter what actually happened. With this technique, a person can redesign a different outcome, one that is perhaps more in line with the values and experiences they have today.

  4. Learning self-love: Children who are abused often believe that it is their fault. There is likely still a part of you that feels like a small child if you experienced trauma as a child. The role of the therapist in such instances is to collaborate with all the parts of a person. In the therapeutic process, every part is welcome, even very angry or suicidal parts. Through collaboration, you'll develop an understanding of how those parts probably kept you protected in the past.


Therapy lasts for 50 minutes and tends to cost between £50 and £60 for individual sessions and £75 for couples.

Therapy is most effective when conducted weekly for as long as it feels helpful and productive. Your therapist will agree with you on the number of sessions that are likely to prove most effective but normally 6 sessions would be the optimal number for achieving lasting and sustainable results. The first initial session is free.

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