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The impact of early childhood traumas on adolescence and adulthood

By Georgina Cadby-Fisher, Community Psychiatric Nurse

Children can suffer trauma from an early age a variety of ways. The NSPCC (National Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Children) estimates that up to half a million children each year suffer a form of abuse. This can have a devastating effect on the child’s development, and has lasting effects throughout adolescence and into adulthood. Children may suffer abuse such as physical, sexual, emotional, neglect or they may witness their caregivers receiving similar kinds of abuse. When a child is young, any perceived threat to the safety of themselves or their primary caregiver can cause a child to feel very frightened and scared. This can have a long-lasting effect on a child through to adolescence and adulthood.

Reactions to trauma

Common reactions in adolescence to childhood traumas can include experiencing strong and overwhelming emotions such as sadness, anger, anxiety and guilt. Often this can affect a teenager to feel unable to cope on a day to day basis.  Due to this a teenager may turn to destructive coping methods; this can include self-harm, drinking alcohol or using illicit substances.

Other reactions a teenager may experience are withdrawing from their family and friends. This can lead to them becoming isolated and spending a lot of time alone. A teenager may also experience disturbed sleep patterns, a loss of appetite or a loss of interest in things they once enjoyed. A teenager may also portray a pessimistic outlook on life. Sometimes this can lead to an adolescence becoming clinically depressed and requiring treatment. If you care for an adolescent who you think may be depressed, then please seek treatment from the appropriate health care provider in your local area.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

In serious cases, a child or young adult may develop PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). PTSD is an anxiety disorder cause by distressing and traumatic events. A person suffering from PTSD generally relieves the traumatic events through flashbacks and nightmare. This can lead to them feeling isolated, misunderstood, irritable and sometimes guilty. To be diagnosed with PTSD the symptoms must have a significant effect on a person’s daily life. It is estimated that 1 in 3 people who witness a traumatic events will develop PTSD – this can be immediately, or months/ years later. If you care for an adolescent who you think may be experiencing symptoms of PTSD then please seek medical advice from the appropriate health care provider in your local area.

It’s not the same for everyone

It is important to remember that not every child who has suffered a traumatic event will experience emotional or mental health difficulties later on in life. Victim Support estimate that over 50% of people abused or traumatised as a young child will display symptoms lasting into adulthood. However, if you are caring for a child or adolescent who is displaying any signs or symptoms mentioned above that they can be treated and start/continue to live a happy and fulfilling life. It is paramount that a child or adolescent feels safe and loved by their primary caregiver. You can provide this security and love, along with professional help if required. Treatments can come in the form of psychological therapy such as counselling, CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy), DBT (dialectical behaviour therapy). Medication can also be provided in some instances if this is required. Childhood abuse can also lead to poor physical health in adulthood – it is important to get checked out at your local GP, hospital or dentist.

For further information and advice

Child Welfare Information Gateway

National Health Service

National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network

Victim Support

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