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How Childhood Trauma Influences Adult Mental Health

Author: The Recovery Village Editorial Team

There are numerous books and blogs about how to raise a child, but the reality is, every child and family is different. There is no definitive model for how to raise a well-adjusted adult, especially for children who do not have the opportunity to develop in a healthy environment.

According to the American Society of the Positive Care of Children, 4.1 million child maltreatment referral reports were received in 2016. The Society indicates that approximately 75 percent of children are neglected, 18 percent are physically abused and 8.6 percent are sexually abused. The early exposure to trauma can influence the development of a child neurologically, cognitively and psychiatrically.

Children who experience trauma are at a higher risk of developing mental health disorders, including:

  • Schizophrenia
  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Substance use disorders (drug and alcohol addictions)

In one study, researchers found that approximately 80 percent of people who were 21 years old and had been abused as children met the diagnostic criteria for at least one psychological disorder.

How Childhood Trauma Influences PTSD

To understand how childhood trauma can cause various mental health and substance use disorders, it is important first to recognize what childhood trauma can include. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, individual trauma can result from an event, series of events or a set of circumstances that are experienced by someone as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening. Childhood traumas often have lasting adverse effects on a person’s functioning, as well as their mental, physical, social, emotional or spiritual well-being.

Childhood trauma can include:

  • Physical violence
  • Sexual violence
  • Emotional abuse
  • Neglect
  • Major health problems like cancer
  • School violence
  • Bullying
  • Natural disasters
  • War or terrorism
  • Traumatic grief; like parental separation, forced displacement or the death of a family member

Many people may experience some trauma during their childhood, but what are the circumstances that cause some adults to develop mental health and substance use disorders while others do not? Some factors, known as risk factors, that can determine whether a child may develop PTSD include:

  • The degree of the perceived personal threat
  • The age or developmental state of the child
  • The relationship between the child and the person causing the trauma
  • The level of support the child receives (if any)
  • The level of guilt or entitlement response
  • The degree of resilience
  • The child’s short-term response to trauma

PTSD and Co-Occurring Disorders

In addition to the development of PTSD, adolescents who have experienced trauma in childhood and have PTSD are 59 percent more likely to develop a substance use disorder. Someone who has experienced childhood trauma may use substances to self-medicate or numb the symptoms of a mental health disorder like PTSD.


About the Author: aims to educate the public with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and often medically reviewed. We also regularly conduct continuing education webinars for healthcare professionals and publish related news and research on behavioral health topics.