Long-Term Effects of Unresolved Trauma in Teens and Adults
Childhood often brings to mind innocence, optimism, wonder, and joy. It is a time of security and feeling protected and loved by the adults in your life. The stability in knowing they are protected and loved by their family is what allows children to form solid and safe relationships throughout their life.
When this sense of security is not there and trust is broken, there can be far-reaching effects.
Trauma in any form at any age can have lasting effects if we aren’t given the opportunity to work through the trauma and heal from it. Childhood trauma, however, is particularly painful and can leave victims with many long-lasting mental and physical health effects if left untreated.
What is Childhood Trauma?
Childhood trauma can take on many forms. No matter the form, there is one thing all types of childhood trauma have in common: adults breaking trust of the child they are supposed to protect and love.
Forms of childhood trauma include:
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Psychological abuse
- Witnessing or experiencing domestic violence
- Community or school violence
- Refugee or war experiences
- Serious accident or life-threatening illness (you or a loved one)
- Having an incarcerated family member
- Sudden death in the family
Even as adults it can be difficult to process such events. Through a child’s eyes, it can be even more difficult to process the nuances of these experiences.
The Effects of Untreated Childhood Trauma in Teens
As the parent or guardian of a teen with unresolved trauma, it is understandable that you want to seek help for your child. Understanding the effects of unresolved trauma can help you guide your child in their healing journey. Here are some of the effects that you can expect to see. Remember, every person’s experience with trauma is different, so this is not an exhaustive list, just some of the most common effects of unresolved trauma.
Self-medicating with drugs or alcohol can be one of the most significant risks of untreated childhood trauma. Many teens use drugs or alcohol as a form of escape or emotional psychological relief. However, there are serious consequences from using these substances, including addiction and even death.
Teens with untreated childhood trauma are also at a much higher risk for mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression. Teens with unresolved trauma often feel on edge as trauma causes our nervous system to be in a constant heightened state (fight or flight response). This means that the body rarely reaches a state of calmness. This can trigger or worsen mood disorders as well as overall mental health. Further, untreated depression can lead to suicidal ideation or even suicide attempts.
Difficulty Connecting and Pursuing Passions
At the heart of it, childhood trauma is caused by broken trust from those in a position of authority. This broken trust can lead to difficulty in connecting with others, including adoptive parents, siblings, teachers, and peers. Your teen may push others away or isolate themselves, making it difficult for them to form healthy relationships. This constant fear and avoidance can keep them from succeeding in school and pursuing their passions, having lasting effects on their life outside of school, even as an adult.
Besides drug and alcohol use, teens with untreated childhood trauma can also exhibit other risky behaviors. These behaviors include promiscuity or dangerous physical stunts. These are often attention-seeking behaviors, however, they can come with serious consequences, including pregnancy, STDs, broken bones, or even death.
The Effects of Untreated Childhood Trauma in Adults
Adults with unresolved childhood trauma experience the same effects as teens, with a few additions.
Lack of Stability
Unresolved childhood trauma can chip away at our sense of self, undermining our own self-worth. Combined with fear, avoidance, and the ability to make healthy connections, it can make it difficult to pursue your passions. Trauma can lead to a lack of stability in adulthood, particularly when it comes to having a career. It could be that you didn’t attend college when you may have wanted to, you didn’t pursue a career path you find enjoyable, or you have issues keeping a job long term because of difficulty connecting with others. This can lead to a lack of financial stability, all of which can worsen other long-lasting effects of untreated childhood trauma.
Feelings of Guilt and Shame
Experiencing trauma often makes victims experience guilt or shame over the adverse events they went through. It does not matter that a victim of childhood trauma does not bear responsibility for what happened to them, as these are normal human responses to horrible things happening to them. Because of a lack of self-worth, victims of trauma often feel like they “asked for it” or “deserved it” in some way. Feeling guilt and shame long term can further lead to mood disorders and anger.
Adult Attachment Disorders
Because you may have been unable to learn what a healthy relationship is or looks like, or because you are unable to make stable, healthy connections with others, you may experience an adult attachment disorder, including:
- Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment: results when the caregiver ignores or rejects a child’s needs; when the victim becomes an adult, they may choose to be ultra-independent in order to protect themselves from being rejected again
- Fearful-Avoidant Attachment: when a child is exposed to abuse and neglect; results in fear of intimacy and close relationships, distrust of others, having a difficult time sharing emotions, or seeming disconnected from a partner
- Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment: stems from parents who were not consistent in the emotional security they provided; results in an adult who may seem clingy or needy, often requiring repeated validation in relationships
Hope in Healing
It is never too late to begin your journey in healing from childhood trauma. For both teens and adults, it is important that you seek out a therapist that knows how to work with victims of childhood trauma. They are able to help guide you through specific types of therapy that have been shown to help people heal from childhood trauma. Additionally, it is important that parents or guardians of teens focus not on correcting bad behaviors but rather, focus on building positive and safe relationships with your teen. No matter your age, repairing relationships and building trust with others is key in healing from trauma. Lastly, give yourself the time and space to heal. Everyone’s journey toward healing is different and there is no specific timeline for healing.