The impact of early childhood trauma on adults

Author: Claudia M. Elsig, MD

Trauma that happens in the child’s early years is often downplayed and outright ignored: after all, if the child cannot describe the event or series of events, nor remember them, do they matter? The answer is a resounding “yes.”

Roughly half of children experience some degree of trauma during their early years. For some, a traumatic event leaves them unharmed, but for others, it may carry a lifetime of consequences. Stress that even newborns experience can later have an impact on their mental and physical health.

What constitutes childhood trauma?

It can begin during pregnancy. When an expectant mother faces stress or trauma, the stress axis of the child is imprinted in a pathological way, in addition to physiological problems that include low birth weight. Combined with the epigenetic predisposition to emotional and physiological conditions, stress during pregnancy can be an additional piece of the puzzle when untangling the roots of issues.

In addition, various types of events that may be traumatic in early childhood are called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). They include1:

  • Physical abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Abandonment or losing a parent to suicide
  • Neglect
  • Drug or alcohol abuse in the household
  • Natural disaster or accident
  • Ongoing stress (bullying; living in a dangerous situation)
  • A near-death experience

Why does it affect some and not the others?

Stress is subjective: if the child is surrounded by love and affection, feels protected and is generally supported, the effects of stress may be countered by the positive factors.

Also, children differ in their perception: what is traumatic for one isn’t necessarily traumatic for another. Several factors are involved, including genetic predisposition, family support and previous experience with trauma2.

Furthermore, some tolerable stress is necessary early on so that the child learns to cope in a healthy way. However, a prolonged period of stress is likely to result in a disruption of the brain architecture and cause long-term damage if left untreated.

What are the effects of neonatal stress in adulthood?

Some traumas can leave scars on a person, especially if they are not addressed in childhood. An abundance of ACEs can lead to toxic stress – a bodily response that changes a person’s brain and nervous system, metabolism, and immune and cardiovascular systems.

Physical effects

Some of the physical effects of early stress exposure include an increased risk of heart and lung disease, diabetes3, liver disease and cancer. Autoimmune disorders and stroke, as well as generally high stress levels, are also more likely in adults who experienced prolonged stress or trauma as children4.

Emotional effects

Mental health is also affected by prolonged period of stress or a traumatic event, and some of the outcomes for adults who experienced early childhood trauma may include:

  • Anger issues
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Higher stress levels
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Psychosis
  • Higher risk of suicide attempts
  • Alcohol or substance abuse
  • Self-destructive behaviors

Consequences of childhood stress and trauma

The consequences of trauma, even if the adult doesn’t remember it, can be detrimental. People who have experienced trauma early on in life are less likely to have satisfying relationships as adults. They might be more reluctant to trust others and form deep relationships. Many of the issues they face – such as low self-esteem, trouble solving problems, sleep disturbances, an inability to plan, or becoming angry easily – are rooted deeply in childhood. They affect both interpersonal relationships and career successes.

What’s more, adults who have untreated adverse childhood experiences sometimes unwillingly continue the cycle, as they have a higher likelihood of exposing their children to ACEs as well.

Attachment styles and relationships

When an infant is not attended to properly and consistently by their caretakers, he or she may develop an attachment disorder that persists into adulthood.

In fact, some studies have found that the type of attachment a baby experiences from their caregiver – that is, how responsive their caregiver is to their needs – is one of the most important predictors of the type of relationship style that infant will have as an adult.

For example, a child with secure attachment will go on to have healthy, secure relationships. At the same time, a child who is often ignored or even neglected – with a caregiver whose style is avoidant – will likely have a difficult time forming intimate relationships and may run away from emotional closeness3. A child who was both attended to and rejected by a caregiver with an anxious attachment style is likely to continuously fear that their partner will leave them, and spend their time analyzing their relationship instead of participating in it.

Facing early experiences in adulthood

Experiencing the effects of ACEs later on in life is not uncommon. Trauma may reveal itself through anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. In cases of abandonment and neglect, physical or sexual abuse, or mental illness or substance abuse in the household, if the early stresses are affecting your life as an adult, these events need to be addressed, even if you don’t have specific memories of that period.

Sleeping well and eating healthily, as well as abstaining from smoking and from drinking alcohol, together with lifestyle choices such as exercise, meditation and involvement with support groups can be helpful. However, nothing is as effective as comprehensive treatment by trained professionals.

…with the help of CALDA Clinic

For years, childhood trauma can lurk in the depths of your psyche, sometimes revealing itself in your psychological and physiological responses. We take a personalized approach, focusing on your experiences and history, addressing your physical and emotional needs at once, applying the best practices of Eastern and Western medicine. Regardless of the gravity of your early childhood trauma, our aim is to help you heal in the shortest possible time.

It’s never too late to get help, and by searching for it, you are well on your way to finding answers to your questions.


  1. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. “Early Childhood Trauma.”
  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. “Adverse childhood experiences and the lifelong consequences of trauma.” 2014.
  3. Van der Kolk, Bessel A. The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books, 2015.
  4. Shields, M.E., Hovdestad, W.E., Pelletier, C. et al.Childhood maltreatment as a risk factor for diabetes: findings from a population-based survey of Canadian adults. BMC Public Health 16879 (2016).
  5. Amir Levine, M.D. and Rachel S. F. Heller, M.A. Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and
    How It Can Help You Find-And Keep-Love.