How Childhood Trauma Affects Us in Adulthood

According to research, two-thirds of us have experienced at least one adverse childhood event. Did you know these instances of childhood trauma continue to impact us as adults?[1]

Trauma describes not only the nature of an event but how it affects you. So, the same incident can affect people differently based on their unique needs and temperaments.[2] Trauma is not limited to physical abuse or neglect. It can show up as emotional abuse or witnessing something too much for a child to handle.

You’d be surprised to learn that your shortcomings or perceived weaknesses may actually be symptoms of unresolved trauma.

Here’s a look at how childhood trauma affects us as adults.

Signs of Childhood Trauma in Adults

1. Relationship Struggles

Your attachment style influences the quality of your relationships. It’s how you connect and communicate with friends, family, and romantic partners.

People who grew up in healthy homes generally have a secure attachment style. They feel worthy of love and seek intimacy in their relationships.

If your emotional and/or physical needs were unmet in childhood, there’s a possibility that you could have developed an insecure attachment style. There are many signs of repressed childhood trauma in adults, and the two main insecure styles are the anxious style and the avoidant style. [3]

Avoidant Style

If you have an avoidant style, you don’t like asking for help. You’ve convinced yourself you don’t require intimacy in relationships and come across as self-sufficient.

In childhood, you may have learned that emotions don’t bring people closer. In fact, they pushed your parents away. As a result, you’re uncomfortable with vulnerability and sharing your feelings.

You might run hot and cold in dating relationships. For example, you pursue someone until things start to get close, then pull away.

Anxious Style

On the other hand, if you have an anxious attachment style, you may come across as “needy.” You fear abandonment and put others ahead of yourself. You may over-value them and think less of yourself.

You spend much time preoccupied with your relationships and getting your needs met. This has the opposite effect of pushing people away, which feels extremely painful to you.

Overcoming Being Avoidant

If you have an avoidant attachment, challenge your habit of distancing yourself from others. Next, reciprocate when friends share their troubles with you. Take yourself out of the listener role and share your feelings and struggles with others.

You may worry opening up will invite rejection and contempt. But you’ll find many people understand you better if you let them in.

If opening up feels threatening, this may go back to your childhood and bring up feelings and moments of abandonment. Remind yourself it makes sense to feel this way, but you’re an adult now.

Overcoming Being Anxious

If, on the other hand, you have an anxious style, seek out securely attached partners. Let go of relationships and people with insecurity attached to them, as it will only exacerbate your pain.

Although being alone can feel terrifying, it’s a worthwhile fear to face. You might decide to take time away from romantic relationships while you work on nurturing yourself.

Develop self-validation rather than seeking approval from outside sources. This means finding ways to meet your own needs rather than relying on a partner to meet them for you. Talk to others besides your partner about your feelings. Practice relying on friends or counselors to help you regulate your emotions.

2. Self-Sabotage

Self-sabotage is a symptom of childhood trauma in adults and it can show up at any time. This is how your inner child tries to keep you safe in ways that actually hold you back.

These self-defeating behaviors may have worked in the past. For example, staying quiet and small helped you avoid getting into trouble with your caregivers.

As an adult, the same self-protection stops you from speaking up in meetings or promoting yourself. This results in being passed over for promotions or failing to attract clients. As a child, you may have been rewarded for hiding your needs and feelings. Hiding helps you avoid the risk of rejection for who you are.

Another outcome of childhood trauma in adults is the difficulty of meeting your own needs. As a result, you’re susceptible to burnout from not knowing when to stop on your way to a goal.

When self-sabotage presents you with the next distraction or compels you to give up before the finish line, it may be answering your need for rest.

3. Perfectionism

Perfectionism shares many of the characteristics of unresolved childhood trauma in adults. These include setting unreasonable standards for yourself, becoming a harsh inner critic, instilling terror of making mistakes, and trouble trusting others.

With this in mind, perfectionism is more nefarious than many of us think. It can be a conditioned response to a childhood in which “good enough” was not an option.

You have a loud inner critic that never seems to let you off the hook. You compare yourself to others and come up short. Never mind if they have decades of experience, you don’t. You feel as though you have to get things right the first time.

The need to be perfect paralyzes you due to your fear of making mistakes. This leads to underachievement and disappointment with yourself. While others are throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks, you’re fretting about criticism that might come if you put yourself out there.

Overcoming Perfectionism

Strive for “good enough” rather than perfect. Allow yourself to do things badly at first.

These are some of the best lessons writers learned from writing “crappy” first drafts. You can edit a draft, but you can’t improve on something that doesn’t exist.

  • Celebrate your attempts and failures as well as your victories. These are growth opportunities and necessary steps on the road to success.
  • Get outside your comfort zone.
  • Say yes when you normally say no.
  • Stop overthinking and fretting over what might happen.
  • Congratulate yourself not for your achievements but because you took the risk.
  • Value courage more than accomplishment.

4. Social Isolation

If you ask, “what does childhood trauma look like in adults?” social isolation is one of the most common symptoms.

Chronic feelings of loneliness and a tendency to avoid social interactions are other signs of unresolved childhood trauma in adults.

You might decide it’s easier to be alone because of how other people trigger you. If you grew up without learning how to handle your emotions or resolve conflict, dealing with others can be uneasy.

It’s not other people you’re avoiding but your reaction to what they might say or do. We can’t predict how others will behave and can easily become dysregulated by a comment or opinion.

That’s why being around others is not relaxing or comforting but challenging and counter-productive. It feels better to be on your own where you can rest safely knowing that no one will “trip you up.”

Overcoming Social Isolation

Growing up, you probably learned to suppress your emotions. Instead of giving yourself compassion, you criticize yourself for your feelings.

Shame around isolation overrides the primary feeling of loneliness. That only makes you want to hide and prevents you from reaching out to others. Acknowledge your feelings of loneliness instead. Give yourself the care and compassion you would give another in the same situation.

Reach out to someone you trust. Tell them the truth about your feelings instead of pretending you’re okay. You may be surprised how your honesty prompts them to open up about their insecurities.

If you have no one you can safely share with, consider talking with a therapist or joining a group online with whom you can unpack your feelings anonymously.

Get out each day. Walking and being near nature are balms for your mental health and can improve your mood. Interact with someone in a low-stakes way, like petting their dog or making a friendly comment.[4]

How Childhood Trauma Affects Us in Adulthood


Relationship Struggles. Connecting with people becomes a hard task that requires lots of energy. You either adapt to an avoidant style or an anxious style. Open up more, and you might be surprised at what others might say.
Self-Sabotage. Being so repressed causes your inner self to start holding back, resulting in losing opportunities and not being able to speak up for yourself.
Perfectionism. Striving for excellence is a good thing, but not when you overly criticize yourself, which can lead to the fear of making mistakes and eventually stopping before even trying. Try to celebrate your attempts and failures. Be happy that you tried.
Social Isolation. You shouldn’t be suffering alone. Overcoming isolation starts by conversing with more people and engaging more by putting yourself out there.

Final Thoughts

The impact of childhood trauma on adults manifests in many complex ways. If you’ve blamed yourself for these outcomes, it’s time to give yourself a break.

Using the tools in this article, you can overcome the symptoms of these unmet childhood needs. No matter how long you’ve suffered, you can easily find your way to a life that’s self-supportive instead of self-defeating.

Featured photo credit: Annie Spratt via


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