Childhood Trauma and its Life-Long Impacts

Instances of trauma may range in severity, from cases of divorce or parents playing favourites on one end, to cases of child abuse, sexual abuse or parents struggling with addiction on the other.

May 10, 2021

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Long Term Impacts

Psychological trauma can come in many forms, and it describes the lasting damage inflicted as a result of distressing events which overwhelm our bodies’ natural ability to resolve and heal from those events. From a soldier returning from war to a victim of child sexual abuse to the partner of an abusive spouse, trauma can impact all of us at any point in our lives. 

One form of trauma which research has identified as inflicting particularly serious, long-term damage is known as ‘complex’ trauma, commonly referred to as childhood trauma. 

“While childhood may be the most common period, the reality is that complex trauma can be inflicted at any stage in life where we’re particularly vulnerable,” say’s Tori McCarthy, Senior Therapist at Sydney’s South Pacific Private rehab center. “That vulnerability is often due to a relationship where someone is senior, or where we’ve become dependent, either emotionally or physically.”

Instances of trauma may range in severity. It can include divorce or parents playing favourites at the lower end of the severity scale, to cases of child abuse, sexual abuse or parents struggling with addiction at the other end of the scale.

Complex trauma is distinguished from other forms of trauma because it is often:

  • Repetitive, prolonged and / or cumulative over a period of time
  • Interpersonal in nature, involving direct harm, exploitation, and mistreatment. This may include neglect, abandonment or indifference from a parent or parental figure
  • Occurring at developmentally sensitive or vulnerable moments, especially in early childhood or adolescence

“Because this form of trauma by definition occurs at developmentally critical moments, it’s impacts can be deep and far reaching,” McCarthy says. “Identifying the trauma and connecting its impact to current behaviours, and helping people become aware of this connection, is the first step in addressing longer-term impacts.”

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Why Is Childhood Trauma So Damaging?

Because this form of trauma occurs at developmentally important times in life, it has the capacity to disrupt a person’s self-perception and can lead to a repetitive, negative internal dialogue.

Given that complex trauma is inflicted in relationships where there’s a power imbalance, or in which the other party is a parent or caregiver, it can also interfere with an individual’s ability to form healthy, secure relationships and attachments. If other authority figures ignored, minimized or dismissed the trauma, it may have compounded the damage, and made it even harder to trust others and reach out for help.

The impacts of childhood trauma in adults and children may include: 

  • Distrust of others 
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Episodes of feeling detached from one’s body or mental processes
  • Being overwhelmed and immobilised by feelings of isolation, guilt, shame, fear and pain
  • Often feeling there is something wrong with you
  • Difficulty building and maintaining healthy relationships
  • Helplessness and feeling hopeless
  • Becoming preoccupied with revenge or, conversely, giving total power to the perpetrator
  • Self-harm, self-mutilation
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Addiction and struggling with moderation
  • Feelings of worthlessness or strong negative perceptions of self

Related Reading: Why Sexual Assault Survivors Sometimes Blame Themselves

How To Heal From Childhood Trauma

Resolving childhood trauma can be a challenging task, but McCarthy says that successful treatment can be life-changing. “Seeing people’s progress as they work through this is one of the most rewarding things about working at South Pacific Private,” she says.

McCarthy says a successful approach will normally start with raising awareness of how people’s responses and coping mechanisms in adulthood may have been shaped by trauma in childhood. “People often come to rehab at South Pacific with an addiction or depression or anxiety, and in the process of treating them we realise that complex trauma is a driving factor,” she says. 

Treatment includes equipping patients with healthier coping strategies and mindfulness techniques to lessen the impact of symptoms, as well as education on how complex trauma works. 

“Those who experience complex trauma often internalise the experience and blame themselves, leading to intense feelings of guilt and shame,” McCarthy says. “That can lead to having a very distorted view of yourself, leading you to feel unworthy, beyond your own control and completely hopeless.” 

Ending this cycle of internalisation by sharing the experience with a trained therapist, or in group therapy sessions, therefore, can be an integral part of the healing process. In South Pacific Private’s family programs, both clients and their loved ones – including partners and chosen family members – are brought into the recovery process as well. 

“If prior trauma has been impacting your relationships negatively, it’s important for you to be aware of that, but also for your loved ones to learn how they might have also been impacted by the problem – or unwittingly exacerbating it,” McCarthy says. 

Comprehensive treatment will aim to help individuals develop healthier relationships, have a more balanced approach to their self-worth and build increased resilience. “For both clients and therapists and family members, this can be a real journey,” McCarthy says. “But when you reach that better place, there’s no doubt it’s worth it. 

To learn more about South Pacific Private’s comprehensive approach to trauma treatment, contact us now on 1800 063 332 or take one of our tailored self-assessments.

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Learn more about key indicators of addiction, trauma and mental health conditions by taking an assessment for yourself, or on behalf of a loved-one.

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