Hurt Kid Grows Up: Adult Signs of Repressed Childhood Trauma

The hurt child can grow into a troubled adult.

They know they can’t change the past. So, their brains repress those memories, hiding the signs of childhood trauma in their adulthood.

However, childhood trauma can have a lifetime-long impact. Even if an adult cannot recall the memories of that early trauma, it can affect their ability to function normally.

Left untreated, that early post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can give way to depression in later life.

What Is Childhood Trauma?

Childhood trauma is a significant, often threatening, abusive event that overwhelms a child’s capacity to cope. These events are called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). These events may be caused by external factors like “mob justice” or internal factors like parental neglect.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

Childhood traumatic events are also called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). These were traumatic experiences that a child had in their early years but was unable to defend themselves from.

A 2016 British study found that almost half of participants (46.4%) had suffered at least one ACE, and 8.3% had suffered four or more.

Causes of Childhood Trauma

Some Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) can be:

  • Poverty
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Bullying, ostracism, and racism
  • Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • Financial, emotional, or physical neglect
  • Medical trauma like illness, accidents, and wrong treatment
  • Parental divorce, domestic violence, substance use in the family

Repressing the painful memories of childhood trauma is a defense against future pain from those experiences.

Effects of Childhood Trauma

ACEs do not always cause trauma, but the greater the number of ACEs experienced, the greater the risk of it.

Indeed, there is a strong link between multiple traumatic events and serious difficulties in later life, as shown by studies.

Those with a history of multiple ACEs are more likely to abuse substances, fare poorly in academics, and even have early deaths (Hughes & Bellis, 2017).

Traumatized children may develop depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders in later life.

People with high numbers of Adverse Childhood Experiences are more likely to have weaker immunity and suffer from diseases such as cancer and emphysema.

Signs of Childhood Trauma In A Child

Children with traumatic experiences may have sleep disturbances, anger issues, physical complaints like belly aches and headaches, fears and nightmares, separation anxiety, and childhood depression.

Forgetting is a useful coping strategy to deal with the painful past.

Adult Signs of Childhood Trauma

Signs of Repressed Childhood Trauma In Adults

How does unresolved childhood trauma manifest in adults?

Most people remember their childhood trauma well into their adulthood. However, some may have forgotten them, while others may have repressed the memory of those events.

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Despite the best efforts to erase memories of childhood trauma, “the body remembers.”

Later effects of traumatic events can come in many forms, like relationship difficulties. Often, they are indirect fallout of the early abuse.

Here are some common signs of repressed trauma in adults:

1. Unhealthy Attachments

A person who has repressed childhood trauma may have difficulty forming secure attachments. We usually see such people as “clingy” types.

Clinginess in a relationship is the tendency to “cling” to the other person to avoid being apart from them, the constant need for attention and reassurance, and the frequent demand that the partner prove their loyalty and love.

Normally, people have one of these four attachment styles — secure, avoidant, ambivalent, and disorganized.

  • Avoidant ones hesitate to open up to their partners or let anyone get too close. It is their way of saving themselves from the hurt of being abandoned.
  • Ambivalent types are a box of contradictions. They will seek attention and contact while also resisting contact and being angry toward their partner.
  • Disorganized ones take on parental roles and try being the mom or the dad in the relationship.

Except for the secure type, all other types of attachment can be the result of childhood trauma. They may be fearful of closeness, and as a result, their relationships with others are not fulfilling.

2. Unstable Relationships

Repressed childhood trauma may make it difficult to build enduring relationships based on trust.

The hurt child may grow into someone who lacks trust in others.

Children raised by neglectful or indifferent caregivers may grow up with a strong fear of abandonment.

They typically become possessive of their partners, jealous that someone else will steal them away, or afraid that they might leave them.

These tendencies make them test their relationships in unnatural ways, like temporary ghosting.

Ghosting is abruptly cutting off contact with another person without any explanation or warning, including ignoring them when the ghosted person reaches out to them.

Partners of such people often feel it is a difficult task being related to them.

Frequently, they do what the traumatized person fears they will do — break up with them.

Do you know how the Stoics handled breakups?

3. People-pleasing Behaviors

People-pleasing is a defense mechanism that a child develops in response to parental abuse. 

The child learns that when they praise or try to please their abuser in any other way, it makes the abuser less punishing. 

That “I’m well-behaved, and you’re so good; so please don’t hurt me” was that little child’s way to keep itself safe.

This people-pleasing behavior gets translated into victims finding it hard to say no to others. They also keep feeling responsible for the reactions and emotions of others.

4. Sleeping Issues

Adults may have repeated nightmares about their childhood traumatic events, which can make them chronic insomniacs.

Moreover, a consistent lack of sleep can make trauma symptoms worse, creating a vicious cycle of helplessness and sleeplessness.

Please note that now we can treat insomnia without any medications.

5. Memory Gaps

Memories are fragile, but their contents are powerful enough to make us fall apart.

So, sometimes our mind will try to protect us by burying the memory of trauma deep into our subconscious. It may lay there buried for years (until something triggers it to resurface).

These people can struggle with gaps in their memories. They simply fail to remember that painful period of their life, no matter how hard they try.

It could make the future appear distant. This tendency to focus on the present without thinking about the future can push them to engage in risky behaviors.

They might also present with confabulation. It means making up false memories when there are no memories.

Confabulation is the act of fabricating memories to fill in memory gaps when a person with a memory problem is not aware that the memories they are fabricating are false.

The majority of researchers currently hold that it is rare for an adult to forget a childhood trauma completely, and that recovered memories are often inaccurate (Otgaar & Howe, 2019).

6. Hypervigilance And Hyperarousal

People who have experienced trauma may be constantly on guard, looking for signs of danger.

Such a state of persistent hyperarousal can make them irritable and anxious, as well as cause an exaggerated startle response.

Their hyperactive sensory system scanning for dangers may make them extraordinarily sensitive to touch, noise, and even smells.

7. Physical & Mental Health Issues

People who have been traumatized in their childhood can be more vulnerable to developing both physical and mental health conditions.

Freezing is a typical trauma response, particularly in children. Years later, this habituated freeze response manifests as a variety of physical symptoms.

Childhood trauma victims are more likely to have depression and mood disorders.

In one study on migraine sufferers, 58% of those surveyed reported histories of childhood abuse or neglect.

Eating disorders, such as a preference for comfort foods and induced vomiting after meals, may be signs of repressed childhood trauma in adults.

This study found a small relationship (r-value of .10) between an eating disorder illness and a history of childhood sexual abuse (CSA).

Some victims resort to maladaptive food habits to cope with post-traumatic stress.

Three common eating disorders are bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa, and binge eating.

Child trauma survivors may also take to purging or controlling portions strictly to regain some control over their bodies or to escape painful memories and emotions.

8. Self-destructive Behaviors

Childhood trauma survivors can indulge in excessive drinking and smoking, substance abuse, and self-harm, including suicidal thoughts.

Their low self-esteem appears to have led to a flawed self-image, which may include feelings of guilt, inadequacy, and unworthiness.

Dr. Maltz wrote Psycho-Cybernetics, an outstanding book on how we can change our self-image and invite success into our lives.

9. Poor Emotion Control

Experiencing trauma in early life may make adults have poor emotional regulation.

The grown-up hurt child may have difficulty managing emotions or responding appropriately to their own needs.

There may also be an inability to control anger and aggression or a tendency to engage in self-destructive behaviors.

10. Tendency To Play Safe

One of the signs of repressed childhood trauma in adults is avoidance of situations that might trigger memories of the traumatic event.

They tend to play safe, always wary of exposing themselves to any situation where they may be criticized or insulted.

Childhood Trauma and Adulthood Stress

Learning how to deal with stress is part of life. However, repeated exposure to abuse, trauma, or other ACEs can negatively impair child development.

Stress responses triggered by parental abuse or dysfunctional home dynamics can stunt the growth of a child’s brain, immune system, and cardiovascular system.

Moreover, exposure to multiple ACEs can cause a heightened and long-lasting stress response, which can cause long-term harm.

How To Treat Childhood Trauma In Adults

Some ways to heal from childhood include Trauma-focused CBT, Cognitive processing therapy, Narrative exposure therapy, Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), Play therapy, Somatic Experiencing, Positive movement therapy, and Meditative art therapy.

The process of healing from childhood trauma can be lengthy and challenging.

Unhealed childhood trauma may have a brutal impact on adults, leaving them feeling worthless and lonely.

In some cases, trauma can be so deeply painful that the sufferers may need care under institutional admission. Those who feel a typical OPD clinic will not meet their needs can be treated in residential treatment centers.


How do you know if you have unhealed childhood trauma?

People may live with unhealed childhood trauma without being aware of it. They may not realize how it impacts their sense of safety, relationships, happiness, and mental health in adulthood.

Repressed memories of childhood trauma may manifest in adults as difficulty forming relationships, low self-esteem leading to failures, inability to control anger, and urges to harm oneself.

How to remember repressed childhood trauma?

The repressed memories of childhood trauma may show up in unusual ways. Those memories may resurface in an adult’s life through dreams, flashbacks, or a traumatic event that triggers the memory.

It can be difficult to predict when these repressed memories could resurface. So, it is essential to be aware of our mental struggles and to always seek adequate support for ourselves without feeling stigmatized. Hypnotherapy may help.

Final Words

Childhood trauma can have lasting effects in adulthood.

Experiencing trauma as a child can affect adult relationships and lead to serious conditions such as eating disorders.

Trauma from childhood can be treated, and help is available. Do not hesitate to seek help if you are struggling with it.

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy — medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes on mental wellbeing, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).

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