From Childhood to Adolescence: The Interplay Between Early Life Trauma and Adolescent Mental Health

January 26, 2024   •  Posted in: 

Childhood is often depicted as a time of innocence – a time in life when we don’t have anything to worry about. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for some – a disturbingly large percentage of children experience trauma during this crucial time.

Trauma is your emotional reaction after experiencing something threatening your safety or life. Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of trauma because their brains are taking in so much all the time without the experience to put those situations into perspective.

The effects of childhood trauma often don’t go away. Children who went through traumatic experiences may continue to exhibit the signs of problematic behaviors and mental health concerns well into adolescence and adulthood.

Understanding childhood trauma

Going through a traumatic event at any age can be damaging to mental health. But childhood trauma, in particular, has been linked to long-lasting consequences throughout adolescence and adulthood.

Part of this is because of the way your brain learns, grows, and forms attachments during the early years of life. Babies and young children store traumatic experiences in their nervous system – which is where the saying, “The body keeps the score,” comes from. The trauma you go through during childhood can affect your mental health and relationships for years to come.

Unfortunately, childhood trauma isn’t as uncommon as you might think. Some reports show that up to 43% of children go through at least one traumatic event. Others say over two-thirds of all children go through at least one traumatic experience by the time they turn 16.

In the U.S., Child Protective Services departments receive around 3 million reports a year involving over 5 million children. The reports are substantiated with proof in about 30% of these cases. Child abuse and neglect are some of the most common types of childhood trauma.

In 2019, nearly 2,000 children died of abuse and neglect in the United States alone. Eight youths die every day from homicide[1].

On top of child maltreatment, some examples of other events that can cause childhood trauma include:

  • Sexual abuse and assault
  • Witnessing domestic violence
  • Community or gang violence
  • School shooting
  • Racism and institutional violence
  • Commercial sexual exploitation (sex trafficking)
  • Military family-related events
  • Serious accidents or life-threatening illness
  • Natural disasters
  • Traumatic loss

Recognizing signs of trauma in adolescents

Trauma shows up in teens in unique ways, whether they experienced it during their adolescence or early childhood years. Trauma responses might look differently in teens than in adults. Too often, teens get blamed for “problematic behaviors” that are a response to the trauma they’ve endured.

When we can recognize the signs of trauma in adolescents, we can take the first steps to help them.

Some signs of and common reactions to trauma in teens include:

  • Having solid and overwhelming emotions, including anger, sadness, hopelessness, anxiety, fear, and more
  • Experiencing sudden and extreme shifts in mood (severe mood swings)
  • Having angry outbursts or being easily irritated
  • Behavior problems or acting out at school or home
  • Engaging in risky sexual behavior
  • Overreacting to small life events
  • Falling grades with no explanation
  • Social withdrawal: it’s normal for teens to want to spend more time with their friends than their parents, but it may be a warning sign if the teen is suddenly withdrawing from everyone in their life
  • Regression, or returning to earlier stages of development (like sucking their thumb or needing to sleep with a stuffed animal)
  • Having difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares
  • Changes in eating habits (eating less or more than usual)
  • Being highly mistrustful and suspicious of others
  • Hypervigilance: being constantly aware of their surroundings or startling easily
  • Becoming overwhelmed and upset by loud sounds
  • Loss of interest in school, friends, or life in general
  • Complaining of physical symptoms with no medical cause (like stomach ache)

This isn’t an exhaustive list, and it’s important to remember each teen is unique. What may be a reaction to trauma for one teen may be a “normal” behavior for another. The important thing is to keep lines of communication open and approach the teen without judgment if anything seems out of the ordinary.

Teen trauma and PTSD

Some teens, but not all, who experience trauma may develop a mental health condition called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Reports show around 6% of people may develop PTSD[2].

The symptoms of PTSD include:

Intrusive memories of the traumatic event: this could be intrusive thoughts or images, nightmares, or flashbacks
Avoiding things, places, and people that remind you of the traumatic event
Hypervigilance, or being on edge and constantly monitoring your surroundings
Negative thinking patterns that have resulted from the trauma, such as “I deserved it” or “I am unsafe.”

There’s no clear answer to why some people develop PTSD after trauma while others don’t. Some risk factors may make some teens more susceptible.

What we do know is that PTSD is not a sign of weakness. Some experts even debate categorizing PTSD as a “mental illness.” Any traumatic event forces your mind to confront a genuinely terrifying reality. There is no “right way” to feel or behave after a trauma.

The impact of childhood trauma on mental health

It’s been well-documented that early life experiences, including childhood trauma, have an impact on mental and physical health throughout one’s life. Teens who have gone through traumatic events may be more likely to suffer from many different mental health problems and adverse life outcomes.

The human brain grows more during childhood and adolescence than in any other period of life. When a child experiences a trauma, their brain development may be interrupted. Specific neural pathways could be weakened while additional survival-based pathways are strengthened. This affects the child’s emotions, behaviors, and more – not only during their early years but also through adolescence and adulthood[3].

Those who have gone through trauma may be more likely to:

  • Live with symptoms of depression, including feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness
  • Have anxiety and intense worries that can’t be calmed
  • Have issues with substance use and addiction
  • Attempt and die by suicide or express suicidal thoughts
  • Have a distorted body image and develop eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder
  • Be involved in a teen pregnancy[4]
  • Have complicated relationships with both adults and peers
  • Dropout of high school[5]
  • Have oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, or other behavior problems
  • Have poor self-esteem

The mental health effects may depend on the type of trauma the child or teen went through. For example, long-term trauma perpetrated by an attachment figure (like childhood abuse or neglect) may cause intense relationship difficulties later on in adulthood.

Treatment options for trauma

Here are some of the most highly recommended evidence-based treatment methods for childhood trauma.

Trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy (TF-CBT)

TF-CBT is a treatment intervention specifically designed for teens and young people. It helps teens and younger adults create a narrative of the traumatic event in a safe and therapeutic environment. Therapists help to identify and change dysfunctional thoughts and patterns that may have arisen from the trauma.

For example, while telling their narrative, the person might identify the trauma may not have happened if they’d made different decisions. The therapist can help the person to understand the trauma was not their fault in any way.

Family therapy

Whenever it’s safe, including family in treatment is essential. It’s helpful when everyone is on the same page regarding treatment and recovery.

This may not be a good option if family members were the perpetrators of abuse.

Mind-body interventions

Mind-body interventions like yoga or mindfulness can be a great tool to help people reconnect with their bodies. Traumatic experiences, especially long-term abuse, can make people dissociate. Using mind-body interventions can assist with becoming grounded in the here and now and start to untangle the effects of trauma within their bodies.

Trauma treatment in Washington at The Center

Here at The Center • A Place of HOPE, we understand how deep the scars left by childhood trauma can be. If you’re struggling with things like depression, anxiety, or eating disorders, then it could be a result of the trauma and abuse you endured earlier in your life.

Our team uses a Whole Person Care approach to mental health treatment. We work with the knowledge that trauma recovery needs to happen on every level – physical, emotional, spiritual, and more.

We also offer a unique intensive treatment program specifically for survivors of emotional and sexual trauma, including emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and sexual assault by a known person (“date rape”).

Unfortunately, trauma isn’t the kind of thing that will go away if you ignore it. But with the proper treatment, you can heal from this. You are more than what happened to you, and there is a new, brighter future that’s waiting for you on the other side of trauma healing.

Contact us to learn more about our different programs and treatment approaches.

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Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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