How can trauma affect children?

Trauma can be multifaced and have numerous ramifications and implications for and in our lives.

Schimmerti (2018, p. 552) says that “distressing experiences may affect the psychological processes of an individual at multiple levels of functioning, fostering significant alterations in self-concept, relationship patterns, and belief systems”. Distressing experiences, we need to add, affect different people in different ways; that is to say, what causes trauma to someone, might not cause the same or at all trauma to someone else. Trauma follows the human uniqueness: since each of us is unique, so are our traumas. Therefore, the coping mechanisms and responses to a potential trauma differ from person to person.

Now, we could say that special cases are children, which are more likely to be victims of abuse not once but multiple times, for many years. The more exposure someone has to violence and abuse, the more is likely to develop trauma. As Schimmerti (2018, p. 553) mentions, “despite the fact that it is known that exposure to a single traumatic event may have a holistically negative impact on an adult’s psychological and behavioral functioning, research is consistent in showing that the exposure to multiple traumatic experiences increases the risk of psychopathology. This appears to be especially true when exposure to multiple traumatic events has occurred during childhood. The increased vulnerability in individuals who were exposed to distressing events in childhood is likely rooted in the fact that children have reduced resourses to process such events on the cognitive and affective levels. Therefore, when parents are unable or unwilling to help their children to regulate the intense emotional arousal derived from trauma, or when they are themselves the very source of trauma (as in the case of parental abuse and neglect), children are left alone with overwhelming emotions and may need to use dissociation* in order to cope with unbearable internal experiences and emotional dysregulation”.

“Dissociation is a mental and psychobiological process that is intrinsic to trauma and is already present in early stages of development. It allows individuals to temporarily protect the mind from experiences that overwhelm their capacity for cognitive processing through a passive disengagement from reality and a compartmentalization of behaviors, thoughts, memories, and feelings related to trauma. Nonetheless, when dissociation is overly activated and relied upon as a person’s primary response to stress, it can become pathological and may foster psychopathology. In fact, an excessive activation of the dissociative processes may obstruct, even at the neurobiological level, the cognitive and affective processing of information and the integration of mental, behavioral, and somatic states, which can only increase the risk for further traumatization and psychopathology” (Schmmenti, 2018. p. 553-554).

Children are unique, adorable, and innocent little creatures. They do their best to be loved, because this is what keeps them going. Surely, food and water do too, but the emotional associations and relationships are essential for their development. So, what happens when their loved ones abuse them repeatedly? When their parents don’t show them love, affection and acceptance? It may sound very hypocritical, but this is one of the causes of psychopathology in their adult lives. To be very clear: trauma does not necessarily lead to psychopathology but psychopathology always has trauma in its roots. The latter part can be a contested topic, but it’s my opinion nevertheless. A child that is neglected and/or abused by its caregivers won’t develop healthy boundaries and relations to others, which would lead them being victimized again in their lives later, as teenagers and adults. It’s unfortunate, but very common, to leave the primary abusive environment and find another one, because it feels like home.

Biologically, when a child is maltreated, this impacts the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system, which leads in future issues, like issues with their mental health (Young, 2022).

This has been an already long post, but my hope is that the severity of child abuse and subsequent trauma came across. We’re going to continue exploring this issue further in future articles.

Until next time,

Love and Light


Young, G. (2022). Psychotherapeutic Change Mechanisms and Causal Psychotherapy: Applications to Child Abuse and Trauma. Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma

Schimmenti, A. (2018). The Trauma Factor: Examining the Relationships Among Different Types of Trauma, Dissociation, and Psychopathology. Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, 19(5), p. 552-571

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