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When to Seek Therapy For Childhood Trauma

cartoon woman and therapist having a session

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), by age 16, two out of three children report experiencing at least one traumatic event. The effects of childhood adversity and traumatic memories can last well into adulthood. 

If you have experienced abuse or trauma as a child, you might wonder if you need therapy. Maybe your busy lifestyle doesn’t leave you time to seek help from a mental health professional. Some people are not even sure if what they experienced qualifies them as childhood trauma victims. The truth is that a behavioral health specialist can help you feel better. 

Please continue reading to understand why it’s important to seek evidence-based treatments for unresolved trauma. We’ll also talk about some of the types of therapies that can help you achieve successful recovery.

What qualifies as childhood trauma?

A traumatic event is any frightening, violent, or dangerous event that poses a threat to a child’s safety. Many kids experience prolonged childhood trauma and live in a constant state of stress with no respite. Others experience a one-time event that causes mental and physical symptoms. Some examples of childhood trauma include:

  • Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • Neglect, homelessness
  • Being witness to family violence in the home
  • Bullying, racism, school or community violence
  • Natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, or fires
  • Life-threatening or serious accidents or illnesses
  • A violent death of a loved one
  • Refugee and war experiences
  • Stressors in military families such as parental deployment, loss, or injury

How do you know if you have unresolved childhood trauma?

Treating childhood trauma is important because unresolved trauma can manifest in many different ways and have a negative impact throughout life. For instance, women who experienced sexual abuse as a child or teen can have post-traumatic stress disorder, fear, guilt, shame, self-blame, and chronic physical pain resulting from the traumatic experience. This can lead to lifelong struggles with relationships and jobs. It can even cause a person to abuse alcohol as a way of dealing with childhood trauma. 

Some of the physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms of childhood trauma in adults include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Panic attacks
  • Compulsive behaviors
  • Eating disorders
  • Suicidal thinking or behaviors
  • Poor concentration
  • Impulsiveness
  • Poor conflict negotiation skills
  • Low self-esteem
  • Self-harm
  • Isolation
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep problems
  • Chronic pain and chronic inflammation

It is important to understand that there’s a difference between unresolved childhood trauma and childhood issues. Many adults look back at how they were raised and can identify destructive patterns, such as an emotionally unavailable parent or poor boundaries. These childhood issues can sometimes give rise to mental health conditions during adulthood. Like childhood trauma, childhood issues can also benefit from therapy. However, these issues are not associated with a traumatic event that can be labeled “childhood trauma.”

When should you go to trauma therapy? 

Ideally, interventions should be made as early as possible. This can help to minimize the effect of childhood trauma on a child’s life and potentially prevent lingering emotional issues and negative effects from the traumatic experiences. Signs and symptoms of trauma can be different in young children and older children. If these symptoms are present, seek care as soon as possible.

Preschool Children

  • Separation anxiety
  • Crying or screaming excessively
  • Nightmares
  • Poor appetite, failure to thrive

Elementary School Children

  • Anxiety, fear
  • Guilt, shame
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Problems with concentration

Middle School and High School Children

  • Anxiety, depression, isolation
  • Eating disorders 
  • Self-harm
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Risky sexual behaviors
  • Other self-defeating behaviors

Childhood trauma is complex and can have a wide-ranging impact. However, a full and successful recovery is possible. The specific type of treatment appropriate for a person depends on the traumatic events experienced. With the appropriate therapy, positive solutions, and support, it is possible to regain independence, resilience, intuitiveness, self-compassion, and self-confidence. Therapy can help victims of childhood trauma lead a values-driven life with emotional and physical wellbeing. 

What kind of therapies are available for overcoming childhood trauma?

Traumatized children can face problems both immediately and in the future. There are various treatment options that can help to identify triggers, develop coping strategies, reduce symptoms, and learn survival skills in a safe and supportive environment. Some of the common treatment modalities used in adolescents, teens, and adults who suffered childhood trauma are described below.

Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT)

This is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). It is useful in treating PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) in adults with long-term effects of childhood traumas. The treatment usually consists of 12 sessions during which a person is taught to identify PTSD emotions and thoughts and how to process them.

Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE)

This is another subtype of cognitive behavioral therapy which typically takes place over a period of 3 months. The sessions involve confronting trauma-related fears, memories, and emotions with the help of the therapist in a safe environment. 

Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT)

This is also a type of cognitive behavioral therapy. It includes trauma-sensitive interventions and relies on support from a trusted family member. The treatment process typically consists of 12-15 sessions. It is particularly effective in children and teens who are struggling with emotional difficulties following a traumatic event. 

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

This is a type of therapy that is used to treat trauma and PTSD. It involves using repetitive eye movements to reprogram memories associated with traumatic events. EMDR is effective in addressing unresolved trauma and unprocessed memories related to traumatic life events.

Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET)

This is a short-term individual therapy that is offered to children and adults. It is similar to trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) and is very effective in individuals who have experienced multiple traumatic events.

Art Therapy

This is a method of treating trauma by using mediums like coloring, drawing, painting, and sculpture (anything that involves creative expression) to heal from traumatic events. Art therapy provides an outlet and can help to improve cognitive responses and self-esteem as well as reduce stress and build emotional resilience to overcome childhood trauma.

Play Therapy

This treatment modality is designed to help children between the ages of 3 and 12 who have experienced trauma. During the session, the therapist observes a child in play and uses age-appropriate behaviors to help the child develop coping strategies and childhood survival skills.

The Takeaway

There are various effective ways of treating child traumatic stress. Unfortunately, many children don’t get the help they need. But it’s never too late to start therapy. If you recall traumatic memories or believe that you may have suffered childhood trauma, seek out a mental health professional and take the first step towards overcoming childhood adversity.


  1. https://www.samhsa.gov/child-trauma/understanding-child-trauma
  2. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/expressive-trauma-integration/201804/trauma-processing-when-and-when-not
  3. https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/types-of-therapy