HomeBlogConditionsHealing Childhood Trauma: A Guide to Emotional Recovery and Growth

Healing Childhood Trauma: A Guide to Emotional Recovery and Growth

This article will provide comprehensive guidance and practical strategies for individuals seeking to heal from childhood trauma, emphasizing the importance of emotional recovery and growth for overall well-being.

Understanding Childhood Trauma

Childhood trauma is any type of trauma endured during your developmental years. This can be something that happens to you or something that happens around you. Childhood trauma can have long-lasting impacts on several aspects of your personality, your relationships, and your well-being. 

This article will cover types of childhood trauma, the emotional and psychological effects it can have in adulthood, the stages of healing, how to heal childhood trauma at home, and what type of therapy to heal childhood trauma might work best for you.

healing childhood trauma

Definition and types of childhood trauma

Childhood trauma can come from several sources, direct or indirect. 

Family of origin trauma, for example, is any trauma that comes from the home. As a child, your home is where you want to feel safe, where you expect to be loved and protected, but if your home life is unsafe during childhood, it can:

  • Change your personality
  • Cause a split in your personality as a defense mechanism
  • Change how you feel about yourself
  • Change your relationship with food or substance abuse

Childhood trauma doesn’t necessarily have to happen to you. It can be something you witness, such as domestic violence, war, natural disasters, or violence in your neighborhood.

Psychological and emotional effects of trauma in children

Childhood trauma can cause behavioral issues, developmental issues, dissociation, and emotional problems.

Cognitive Issues

The developmental years are critical to mental function, so exposure to traumatic events can interfere with problem-solving, clear thinking, and reasoning. This can make it difficult for children, as they grow up, to plan ahead and anticipate the future.

When children experience trauma, all of their resources internally are focused on survival, which means they can develop issues down the line, thinking through problems calmly and considering different alternatives. Instead, they act impulsively and focus only on their immediate survival.

Emotional Issues

have difficulty:

  • Identifying their emotions
  • Managing how they feel
  • Expressing their feelings

It’s not uncommon for children to either externalize or internalize their stress reactions, and that can result in angry and unpredictable outbursts, depression, or anxiety. If a child is reminded of their traumatic event, they might react with avoidance, trembling, or anger.

When children learn that the world is dangerous and the people they love may not necessarily protect them, they become more guarded in their interactions, and they’re more likely to see everyday situations as highly stressful or even dangerous. This can result in children becoming emotionally numb to threats and having an inability to manage their emotions or cultivate intimate relationships in adulthood.

Behavioral Issues

Childhood trauma can cause severe behavioral issues where children don’t know how to self-regulate, which means they can’t calm themselves down if they are triggered or if their emotions get too high. Children may also be unable to control their impulses or think about the potential consequences before they act.

When children feel powerless, or they have grown up in an environment where an authority figure was abusive, they are likely to respond to any perceived blame with things like aggression. They’re also more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as reckless speeding, self-harm, unsafe sexual practices, substance abuse, stealing, or other illegal activities that increase the risks of legal issues and juvenile detention.

Dissociation

Children who have encountered several terrifying experiences might struggle with dissociation, where they separate themselves mentally, perceiving their bodies as elsewhere. They might even lose their memories of the experience with significant gaps in their personal history timeline. At its most extreme, this can cause children to lose touch with parts of themselves. This dissociation is a defense mechanism, but it can impact learning, behavior, and social interactions and even lead to split personalities.

The lasting impact of unresolved childhood trauma in adult life

Without healing childhood trauma, individuals are at an increased risk of developing medical conditions and mental health issues. Children with exposure to at least one traumatic childhood incident are more likely to struggle with high-risk behaviors like unprotected sex and smoking, chronic illnesses like cancer or heart disease, and premature death.

Unresolved childhood trauma can have a lasting impact in adulthood, causing legitimate mental health disorders like:

  1. PTSD
  2. Acute stress disorder
  3. Adjustment disorders
  4. Reactive attachment disorders
  5. Depression
  6. Personality disorders
  7. Disinhibited social engagement disorder

It can also cause issues with daily functions such as:

  1. Problems with sleep
  2. Mood disorders
  3. Relationships issues
  4. Poor health and nutrition 

Unresolved childhood trauma can have lasting impacts that might even go unnoticed. 

For example:

Aaron always eats his food very quickly, and he eats enough that he is borderline sick after most meals. He’s done this most of his life and doesn’t know why.

Aaron also has issues with his relationships whenever a partner raises their voice or demonstrates frustration with him because of something he did. He goes out of his way to avoid making mistakes and to always placate the other person in his relationship so that they are never mad at him. If they do get mad and raise their voice even ever so slightly, he perceives it as ‘yelling’ at him and starts to struggle with panic attacks and severe anxiety. He doesn’t know why.

These small issues interfere with his sleep quality and his stress levels and inhibit Communication in his relationships.

With the right treatment, Aaron can figure out how these issues might be related to childhood trauma and how he can solve those issues by resolving his trauma. 

Stages of Healing from Childhood Trauma

Stage One: Recognition

The first stage is recognition. Healing from childhood trauma only happens when you move beyond the denial phase and become aware that there is a problem.

For example:

Aaron might normally say that his stepdad drank a lot, but he didn’t drink as much as some of the other dads in the neighborhood. 

But eventually, that defense mechanism designed to protect Aaron from uncomfortable memories and pain will have to be disbanded.

Stage Two: Acknowledgment

The second stage is acknowledging that there is a problem. In the case of Aaron, that might mean doing away with excuses and acknowledging that his stepfather was an alcoholic and that when he drank, he was abusive.

This stage can be emotionally painful as you acknowledge your history and deal with uncomfortable feelings like resentment, grief, or depression. You might even report feeling jealousy toward other people who haven’t gone through what you have gone through. This is usually the stage at which people start to consider therapy, and it’s important that you allow yourself to feel all of your emotions and acknowledge the things that you had to endure. 

Stage Three: Processing

The third stage is the processing stage, where you start to heal. This is the stage where you recognize how your trauma has affected you and what deficits you might have as a result. During this stage, you’ll learn more about your situation and spend a lot of time working through feelings like shame or grief until you have recognized the way your trauma has influenced you and the ways in which you can change that into something positive. 

Stage Four: Recovery

The fourth stage is recovery. This is a lifelong stage. You won’t wake up one day after going to therapy and processing your trauma and feel perfect. There will still be days when you occasionally struggle with emotional pain when your wounds are opened because you were triggered. But it’s important to recognize that you can build the tools you need to continue your long-term recovery. 

Therapeutic Approaches to Heal Childhood Trauma

Healing childhood trauma often starts with therapy. You can find things like:

  1. Traditional therapy
  2. Trauma-focused therapy
  3. Alternative therapies

A professional can help you move through your healing journey by offering information specific to your needs and your background. You can certainly gain knowledge about childhood trauma in general, but your experiences are highly personalized, and the steps you might go through during the stages of healing from childhood trauma might be equally personalized.

The longer you work with a therapist, the better they’ll be able to get to know you and provide actionable help. 

How to choose the right therapeutic approach

Given that there are several approaches available for therapy to heal childhood trauma, it is important that you consider what might work best for you.

EMDR

EMDR is the most popular treatment used by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the WHO for PTSD. It is an alternative form of treatment that helps your brain change the way in which traumatic memories are stored so that you can better process them and move on. It doesn’t require you to talk about the experiences out loud but instead to simply bring them into focus in your mind with as much detail as possible while you follow movements with your eyes.

This might work best for people who still struggle with giving a voice to their trauma and might be more comfortable simply thinking about it rather than talking about it.

Art/Music/Animal Therapies

Art therapy, music therapy, and animal therapy are becoming equally popular holistic options. These represent different categories of holistic therapy or alternative therapy that are still evidence-based practices.

Things like art therapy, for example, give an opportunity to express your emotions in a tactile fashion, without necessarily having to give voice to the issues but instead being able to create some form of artwork or work through the anxiety associated with a traumatic memory by using a coloring book at the same time.

This might work best for people who may be uncomfortable with the traditional setting of sitting in a room with a therapist one-on-one or in a group and would prefer to have some sort of tactile engagement while they also talk to a therapist. This can be a good distraction for many people and less intimate.

Talk Therapy

Traditional talk therapy offers an opportunity to work with the therapist individually so that they get to know you and your background. The more they get to know you and the more you build trust with that therapist, the easier it will be for them to provide help when it comes to setting and meeting goals, changing behaviors, or recognizing symptoms of your childhood trauma so that you can process them and move forward.

This might work best for people who want the traditional therapeutic setting, who want the privacy and comfort of sitting in a room and being able to talk through things out loud without any pressure.

Healing from Childhood Trauma Without Therapy

Figuring out how to heal childhood trauma may not include trauma-focused therapy. Instead, it might include working through issues yourself. This can extend to utilizing self-help strategies and techniques at home to not only process your trauma in a healthy way but control the impact it has on your life and your emotions moving forward.

In order to understand this impact, you have to understand how memory works:

The adage that time heals all things has some foundation in science when it comes to the way in which memory functions.

Aaron experienced severe trauma in childhood when he watched his stepfather come home drunk and start abusing his mother. He realized this when he began to reflect on his life during his 20s. 

He remembered that his mother picked him up, and they ran to the door to try and escape, but he watched his stepfather continue to punch his mother in the stomach until she dropped Aaron. His mother picked him back up, and while his stepfather was distracted reaching for a gun, he and his mother ran out the back door, jumping over the fence and racing to a payphone where they could call for help. Aaron passed out and remembers waking up in a hospital with a toy race car in his hospital bed.

Now consider this:

  • When the police came to talk to Aaron about what he had experienced and what he saw, Aaron had just had a piece of chocolate cake that a nurse had given him, and he was playing with his new race car. He was still very upset as he recalled the details of what his stepfather had done.
  • The next time Aaron was asked if he remembered anything by some of his family members, he wasn’t actually remembering the initial traumatic event. Instead, he remembered the last time he recalled the memory, which was when he was sitting in the hospital eating a piece of chocolate cake and playing with his toy race car.
  • A few years later, when Aaron was discussing something for a research paper for school, he was reminded of the event as the paper had to do with domestic abuse. It triggered the memory, but when Aaron remembered what had transpired, he was not actually recalling the initial event but rather the time when he was sitting with his family thinking about the event.

It’s very important to understand the way in which this works, a phenomenon discovered thanks to Alzheimer’s research: When you recall something, you do not recall the original memory, but you recall the last time you recalled that memory, and with it, all of the emotions–good or bad– from that last recall.

 This means you have the power to modify the feelings and intensity of those feelings surrounding certain events because if you recall them while you are happy, while you are doing something you love, or while your body is full of endorphins from things like exercise, you can change the severity of emotions surrounding that memory so that they are less painful or traumatic and this makes it easier to process.

healing childhood trauma

Self-help strategies and techniques

Not everyone is in a position to access therapy. There can be financial limitations, geographical limitations, time constraints, or people simply may not be emotionally ready. Nonetheless, figuring out how to heal from childhood trauma without therapy is possible.

Reading

Read whatever you can publish from reputable sources. Childhood trauma healing might happen with unique promptings, such as reading a publication from a therapist about similar stories, what a therapy session might have been like for someone who was able to successfully resolve childhood trauma, or what a therapist might suggest for certain circumstances.

Not everything you read may be helpful or provide the resources you need at different stages of healing from childhood trauma, but the more you absorb and learn about the long-term impact of trauma and how you can utilize coping strategies at home, the easier it will be for you to find strategies that really work for you.

Watch Lectures

There are several resources available that offer lectures you can listen to or watch in your spare time, which can offer guidance on the stages of healing from childhood trauma and how to heal from childhood trauma without directly going to therapy.

Resources like The Great Courses offer several affordable college courses taught by licensed therapists, psychologists, specialists, and professors in their fields having to do with things like:

  1. Building Resilience after trauma
  2. Cognitive behavioral therapy
  3. Mayo Clinic guides on the science of living a happy life and learning coping strategies
  4. Mindfulness

You can access online videos from resources like YouTube or listen to books through Audible, finding free or affordable resources that don’t require you to go to traditional therapy. 

Tips for maintaining emotional health and preventing retraumatization

The more you learn, the more you’ll better understand some of the childhood traumas you’ve experienced and perhaps why those experiences manifest in unique symptoms that you never thought twice about, such as eating very quickly because of anxiety.

But once you’ve processed and acknowledged those traumas, you’ll still have to work hard to maintain your emotional health and prevent retraumatization in your personal life. This can include setting boundaries, especially early in your healing process, and as you learn to cope, it might transition into employing self-help and coping strategies when things trigger you.

Mindfulness and Meditation

Mindfulness and meditation are two of the most important tools you will learn when it comes to coping with childhood trauma.

For example:

Whenever Aaron talks to his mother about his stepfather, no matter the context, the conversation always seems to come back to abuse. Aaron, now an adult, is trying to heal childhood trauma. He went to therapy to heal childhood trauma when he was very young, right after the incident with the toy race car, but he doesn’t remember much. Now, as an adult, he is trying to figure out how to heal from childhood trauma without therapy because it doesn’t seem to offer much guidance.

He has taken a mindfulness course and has started daily guided meditations, which he has done for the last eight months nearly every day. The mindfulness and meditations have taught Aaron that he needs to accept all of his emotions in order to be at peace with his whole self and that trying to avoid negative emotions or push them away when childhood traumatic memories are brought to the surface will only cause him distress twice.

So where Aaron’s siblings have taken to ignoring their mother, not calling her, and not talking to the family for fear of being triggered by a discussion coming back to abuse, Aaron has recognized that his mother is processing in her own way and that any discussion that comes back to abuse is not done intentionally to trigger him. 

He has learned that when he gets off the phone or when he leaves her house, he has to follow a guided meditation to help him come to terms with all of the emotions he’s feeling and to figure out what he might need to do emotionally or physically to try and work through that. 

Yoga and Exercise

Exercise is an important step in healing. During your recovery stage, you might face triggers, and even though you have acknowledged your childhood trauma and worked to process it, there might be days when you struggle.

During those days, when a discussion with a family member, a television program, or a flashback reminds you of something from your childhood, you can continue your childhood trauma healing by doing things that improve the associations around that memory, by going for a walk, hiking, or doing yoga. 

Exercise can increase your endorphins and other chemicals that boost your mood, helping you cope with any negative emotions brought about by your childhood trauma.

Yoga is particularly effective as a form of self-help because it allows you to bring your focus back to the present moment so that you are not stuck ruminating about the past. If you feel trapped in an endless cycle of negative emotions or thoughts because of childhood trauma recall, yoga can force you to bring your attention to something within your control: your breathing. It connects your mind and body to the present moment in such a way that it leaves no room for rumination.

Summing Up

Childhood trauma can have a lasting impact and bring with it higher risks of the development of mental health disorders if left untreated. Thankfully, healing childhood trauma is possible at any age. Continuous growth and emotional development are a big part of how you heal childhood trauma. What matters most is that you remain patient with yourself and that you seek therapy to heal childhood trauma if that feels like the right choice, but whether or not you can, you utilize self-compassion and self-healing tips throughout your journey.