If you experienced an event during your childhood that bothers you, activates intense feelings, affects your current relationships or ability to be in relationships, then it is wise to do the healing work with the right provider so that you can reach your life, relationship, and professional goals.
I often find that one of the most common questions that goes along with “How can I heal from childhood trauma?” is also “How do I know if what happened to me is ‘trauma’”? Events in childhood can be incredibly confusing, because we are operating out of a limited capacity. Kid brains have very real limitations on ways to interpret events, context, emotions, and the behaviors of others, particularly those who are in authority over us like a primary caregiver or another adult. This is also why we can be vulnerable to wounds from childhood events that still affect our lives today, and why it is so important to heal from those wounds.
If you have a child under your care that you think may have experienced childhood trauma, an evaluation from a professional may be very helpful to you. If you know a child who has experienced trauma, they are still developing, which means healing can come swiftly. When in doubt, heal it.
There are many options that are available to you in healing from childhood trauma depending on your unique needs and preferences.
What Is Childhood Trauma?
The Greek word for trauma translates to “wound.” Trauma, including childhood trauma, can be considered as the wound that happens to us because of what happened to us, or what may not have happened to us, like having needs that didn’t get met. Trauma can manifest immediately, decades into the future, and even into future generations. Trauma is different from events in your life that are annoying, uncomfortable, or upsetting temporarily.1
Examples of Childhood Trauma
There are many examples of childhood trauma and there is no list that can capture the unique ways we respond to our environment and life events growing up. Childhood trauma can include single events or chronic exposure to something harmful in the environment.
Examples of childhood trauma may include:
- The chronic absence of basic needs, including affection, food, shelter, and education
- Experiencing systemic and institutional racism
- Displacement through chronically moving, removal from a childhood home, persistent homelessness, natural disasters, or acts of terrorism
- Experiencing emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
- Chronic and extreme stress in the childhood home, such as witnessing domestic violence, the volatile separation or divorce of caregivers, untreated mental health conditions of one or more family members, or parental incarceration
- Loss of a beloved family member or friend in childhood
The Effects of Childhood Trauma
The effects of childhood trauma can be obvious or subtle. As adults, it can affect our ability to self-advocate at work, perform professionally, maintain healthy romantic or platonic relationships, manage strong emotions, and have healthy self-esteem. For children, the effects are similar, often with a more pronounced change in behavior or mood.
The potential signs of a child who has or is experiencing trauma include, but are not limited to:
- Academic underachievement
- Under-responding or over-responding to emotional events
- Changes in behavior or communication
- A heightened sense of hypervigilance, anxiousness, clinginess, chronic worry, or explosive anger
- Dysregulation related to depression, despondency, lethargy, inability to focus, isolation, or quietness
- Chronic illness and sickness including irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue, or injuring easily
Stages of Healing From Childhood Trauma
There is not a set or scripted way to heal from childhood trauma as everyone’s experience is different. This can vary depending on whether childhood offenders are still currently in your life, family structure on whether events can be talked about or not, or current life events and situations. However, there are specific steps and experiences of healing childhood trauma that are common to most people who decide to do this work.
“It is important to note that the process of healing looks different for everyone. Yet, one of the very first steps in healing and recovery includes understanding the trauma one experienced. A comprehensive and thorough assessment of traumatic experiences, such as the type, duration, frequency, and severity of the trauma, is critical as it can inform strategies to heal from trauma. Other steps in the process of healing may include reaching out to trusted family and friends, seeking professional help from mental health professionals, building trust, gaining support from others, receiving services, participating in treatment/therapy, building a healthy self-image, and practicing self-care.” – Susan Yoon, PhD, Associate Professor at the College of Social Work, The Ohio State University
Here are three stages you might experience when healing from childhood trauma:
1. Getting Real
The most common, universal starting point is being honest with yourself about how your childhood experiences may be impacting your current life. Childhood trauma can impact your physical health, ability to choose and maintain healthy relationships, manage your emotions, and can be either the primary source or source of triggers for mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.
One of the largest ways childhood trauma can affect your current life is your ability to value yourself, self-advocate, and to trust yourself or others. The first step in healing from childhood trauma is being honest about how certain events, specific people, or unmet needs have impacted your current functioning in various areas of your life, professionally and personally.
In the case of healing from childhood trauma, this includes accepting the reality that certain people in your life, including primary caregivers, may not have been able to provide for all of your needs or protect you from all situations, which can result in either intentional or unintentional harm or trauma.
Accepting the reality of how things have impacted you is particularly difficult, as you might experience guilt for feeling like you are putting down your caregivers or the situation in which you were raised. The difficult reality can be accepting that you can hold both experiences, the good and the bad. You can be real about the great and wonderful parts of your childhood, those that did the best that they were able to while you were growing up, and also accept those parts, events, or individuals that resulted in wounds.
We are all products of the environments in which we were raised. Healing from childhood trauma includes accepting that people can be good and bad, experiences can have a mix of positive and negative, and both can receive equal credit for the role it has had in our Iives or the impact it has had on our wellbeing.
3. Growth Focus
Self-growth takes work, and healing from childhood trauma is no different. This step involves rolling up your sleeves and gathering your resources, including personal supports, professional services, and additional financial or health insurance information. This step also requires your willingness to ask for help, to remain open to learning new skills, to own your shortcomings, and to endure temporary discomfort.
One of my most influential mentors, Dr. John Boyle, once said to me, “the only way to not organize your life around something is by attending to it.” The hardest part of this can be the fact that facing our adverse childhood events can be temporarily disruptive. It can have implications for our current relationships, challenge the way we have always thought about events from the past, and cause us to rethink our current life situation.
Healing from your own childhood trauma can result in the following positive life changes:
- Healed relationships or new relationships that are life-giving
- New or renewed choices that result in a significantly better life or future
- Improved self-esteem and understanding of the value you bring to your workplace or personal life
- New or renewed life goals and interests
Yoon states, “Unfortunately, there is no magic number when it comes to the length of time it takes for an individual to heal from childhood trauma. Some people, especially young children who tend to show greater resilience, bounce back quickly from adversity. For others, healing is a lifelong journey. Taken together, it is important to view healing as a process rather than as an outcome or final product. Recovery and healing can take time, but it is certainly possible.”
Effective Forms of Therapy for Healing From Childhood Trauma
There are many forms of professional help to overcome childhood trauma. Trauma has become a buzz-word in our society with many claiming to have tools for helping overcome childhood trauma, from coaching services to self-help programs. However, it is best to work with qualified individuals who are licensed or board certified and have a specific specialization in trauma-informed care.
Below is not an exhaustive list of therapy and counseling methods but can provide you a snapshot of some of the most researched, effective, and evidence based interventions for healing from childhood trauma:
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
EMDR is one of the most recommended treatments for trauma recovery. It is effective for children, adolescents, and adults and can done in-person or in online EDMR sessions. EMDR helps you overcome childhood trauma by determining and desensitizing specific “targets,” which might be memories, negative beliefs, intense feelings, or negative body sensations. This helps the mind gain access to more accurate information about situations, events, and people that we may not have had as children.
Once we are able to connect to more accurate information about our childhood trauma, we are able to heal by no longer holding such negative beliefs about ourselves, having adverse body sensations triggered by associations, or experiencing intrusive images from past trauma. EMDR can be used to treat symptoms of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and more, which may all be experienced after childhood trauma.
Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT)
TF-CBT is a childhood trauma recovery intervention that focuses on both the primary caregiver and child (aged 3-18) to maximize existing supports, target negative and self-defeating belief systems, and learn effective coping skills.
TF-CBT is an evidence-based intervention for families looking to gain knowledge through education and parenting skills, directly support the child through their healing process, and enhance future interactions and safe development.
Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT)
CPT is an evidence-based intervention focused on recovery from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). CPT is a short-term therapy that lasts for 12 sessions where individuals focus on identifying distorted thoughts and beliefs related to the trauma, and how those thoughts and beliefs impact current feelings and behaviors. The participant is then taught to challenge and modify unhelpful beliefs to improve their lives.
This intervention is great for those who like an action-oriented focus on psychoeducation coupled with practical tools on how to address unhelpful thinking. It can be delivered in individual and group structures.
Play therapy describes the therapeutic use of play to capitalize on children’s natural learning process. This specific intervention may stand on its own or be incorporated into some of the therapy types described above. It involves the use of toys, puppets, games, and storytelling to help a child who often does not have the adequate language to describe or capacity to process their experiences.
Play therapy can be effective for processing childhood trauma, learning new coping skills, and redirecting inappropriate behaviors. Play therapy is an incredible mechanism of healing that meets the child where they are in their development, while allowing their minds to heal from often very adult situations.
Art therapy is an effective treatment modality for most people of all ages. It involves the creative use of artistic medium for alternative forms of self-expression when words fail. Art therapy can be utilized in healing from childhood trauma in putting image, texture, or color to our experiences, helping those experiences integrate. It can also go beyond the basics and expand into the expressive arts. With a trained and qualified therapist, the participant does not need to be an artist themselves to experience significant benefits from this intervention.
Exposure therapies are a tried and true method of trauma recovery, and have been proven to be very effective in treating childhood trauma. The focus of exposure work is to help participants confront their fears, which results in desensitization and a reduced need to avoid them.
There are several types of exposure treatments, but here are two that are commonly used in trauma recovery:
- Prolonged Exposure (PE) focuses on teaching the participant that trauma-related memories and triggers are no longer dangerous and that the event has passed. It is often used to treat PTSD over eight to fifteen sessions, utilizing imaginal exposure while working with the provider and in vivo exposure in-between sessions.
- Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET) focuses on developing a life narrative that adds context to our traumatic experiences. The added context includes surrounding information that we may not have understood at the time of the event, as well as incorporating some parallel positive events. This context helps the mind move beyond the trauma and to see that life can be experienced outside of it.
Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT)
Parent child interaction therapy (PCIT) is for primary caregivers and their children ages 2 to 7 focused on improving the development of the child and the skills of the caregiver. When focused on childhood trauma recovery, it is very effective in reducing child behavioral problems, child trauma symptoms including dissociation, and caregiver distress.2
PCIT is a structured intervention conducted through the use of a one-way mirror. The caregiver utilizes an earpiece and is guided by the therapist while interacting with the child, allowing for simultaneous learning, healing, and growth, directly through the caregiver.
Finding a Therapist to Help Heal Childhood Trauma
Finding the right therapist can be intimidating at first. If you are interested in any of the above therapeutic interventions for healing childhood trauma, you can visit an online therapy directory where you can filter therapists in your area by their specialties and certifications.
Yoon encourages, “It is significant to remember that there is no “one-size-fits-all” formula that works for childhood trauma. Therefore, clinicians and practitioners should offer carefully tailored interventions to support and empower clients on their journey to healing from childhood trauma.”
You have already taken the first step in healing from childhood trauma or supporting a loved one in healing from their own childhood trauma by reading through this article. Healing might be difficult, but is almost certainly worth it.