Recovering from trauma is hard no matter when it happens. However, if adversity happens during childhood, it can be especially hard to overcome. Unlike adults, children have very little control over their environment. If a child is living in an abusive home, their ability to remove themselves from that environment is extremely limited, whereas an adult will usually have more emotional and financial resources with which to escape.
Meanwhile, children are still learning what healthy relationships look like, as well as how to cope with difficult situations. If a child is growing up in a household where abusive behavior is the norm, this can skew their understanding of what is and is not acceptable within a relationship. Even when the trauma is unavoidable, such as a death in the family or a major illness of a family member, children are still developing their coping skills, which makes it that much harder for them to process what has happened.
So how can adults who experienced adversity in childhood process and deal with that trauma now that they’re grown?
How to measure your childhood trauma
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) quiz, is a measure of childhood trauma. The test itself is short—only ten questions—and asks about family adversity growing up, including physical or sexual abuse, neglect, and about family members with mental health struggles or substance abuse.
The higher the score, the more likely a person is to develop chronic health issues during adulthood, such as anxiety, depression, diabetes, asthma, cancer, obesity, coronary heart disease, and substance abuse. People who score a 4 or higher have a significantly higher risk than those who didn’t experience childhood adversity.
If you do have a high ACE score, knowing that these early experiences can have a negative impact on your health and well-being as an adult can be quite discouraging. However, it’s really important to remember that your ACE score is only an indicator of what you went through, not a guarantee of what your future will look like.
“Just because a person has experienced several ACEs, that doesn’t necessarily mean later problems are inevitable, that just makes them predisposed,” said Genevieve Rivera, executive director of the American SPCC, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating parents and preventing child abuse. “We do have strategies, practices, tools, and routines that can help us to rewire our brains and our bodies.”
Start by seeking out professional help
“If you have a trauma history, if you have experienced childhood adversity, what you can do is get connected with support ahead of time,” said Melissa Goldberg-Mintz, a clinical psychologist and founder of Secure Base Psychology, PLLC. “That’s something you can do preventively.”
For people with high ACE scores, there is a strong probability they will develop issues such as PTSD, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, anger, and suicidal impulses. That is why it is essential to be proactive about seeking the mental healthcare you need. “It’s really important to have a professional in your corner to help guide you through,” Rivera said.
Seeking help is often the first, most essential step for working through the lingering effects of childhood adversity, and it can serve as a foundation for establishing a healthy, functional life.
Learn to recognize and develop healthy relationships
“Connection is the best medicine we have,” Goldberg-Mintz said. If a child going through adversity also experiences a warm, loving relationship—whether it’s a parent, grandparent, or caregiver—this will often provide a protective buffer against developing issues later in life. “The single best way we know how to deal with emotional pain is through connecting with people we feel securely attached to,” she said.
Adults who didn’t experience a loving relationship as children, however, can still work on developing healthy relationships later in life, which can help stave off some of these outcomes. Humans are social creatures. We crave connection, and if we don’t get it, our mental and physical health can suffer. Developing an understanding of what healthy relationships look like, and what the boundaries and expectations in those relationships should be, is key.
Make your physical and emotional well-being a priority
Given that childhood adversity can result in a number of chronic health issues later in life, whether physical or mental, it’s important to focus on caring for your physical and emotional well-being.
“You want to make sure your basic needs are being met,” Goldberg-Mintz said. This includes getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy diet, and connecting with others. “If you’re not getting your basic needs met, you are going to be more vulnerable to these bad outcomes.”
This can be challenging, especially because conditions like depression and anxiety make getting enough sleep or exercise especially difficult, the more you can focus on your own physical and mental well-being, the better.
Strengthen your resiliency
Resilience is the capacity to recover from adversity quickly. Some children who experience adversity are able to develop resilience, while others have a harder time. “Research shows that even just one supportive parental figure in a child’s life goes a long way toward helping them build this resilience,” Rivera said.
However, for those who struggled to build resilience during childhood, it’s still possible to develop these skills as an adult—and that goes back to seeking professional help and focusing on building those healthy relationships. Resiliency has a way of developing naturally when we do those things.
“We all have resiliency inside us, but we have to work on building it,” Rivera said. “Research has actually shown that our bodies experience a positive biological response when we’re surrounded by healthy relationships.”