The Subtle Signs of Childhood Trauma We Often Overlook

E.B. Johnson
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by: E.B. Johnson

While some of us live openly with the knowledge of our turbulent pasts, not everyone understands or even recognizes the signs of childhood trauma in their lives. It’s understandable. The effects of this early trauma are complex and far-reaching. In order to find truth and connection in our adult lives, though, we have to be brave enough to pull back the curtain and accept how these traumas of the past are affecting our here-and-now.

The subtle signs of childhood trauma we often overlook.

Not all signs of childhood trauma are overt. Sometimes, only little cracks appear as a result of the trauma we suffer early in life. Still, these cracks can grow over time and turn into major issues that undermine our happiness in adult life. Want to build a future that’s better and brighter than now? Admit when childhood trauma is tripping you up in the present.

Hyper-critical of self

One of the most common signs of childhood trauma is a development of a highly critical inner voice. While this is one of the most common signs, it’s also one of the most overlooked. When you are overly self-critical, you tear yourself down constantly in thought and downplay your own thoughts and the value of your own skills and person.

Inappropriate attachment

What happens when you get attached to a person or a thing that you own? Do you fall quickly? Get upset and throw a fit if it gets taken away from you? What about your intimate relationships? Do you get overly attached to people? Do you get clingy and obsessive? Or do you struggle to attach deeply at all? All of these can be signs that you’re disconnected with something in childhood.

Head in the clouds

Are you someone who is always lost in fantasy or mentally checked out most of the time? While we very often treat this like an aspect of a fanciful personality, it can actually come as a result of a dysfunctional or traumatic childhood. Disassociating can result from an inability to deal with the hard or complex emotions and memories that are anchored inside of you. It’s a way of surviving without keeping the body in a total state of stress.

Being a people pleaser

Are you someone with an extremely people-pleasing nature? Does it make it hard to make quality friends or keeping them on a real (and mutually valuable) level? This may be related to events in your childhood that you taught you this behavior was necessary. Perhaps your parents forced you to work for their love, or you were denied the love you needed — so you go to extremes to keep it in your life now.

Looking for perfection

Are you someone who has an obsessive need for perfection? While we tend to brush this off as something that we “inherit” it can very often be a result of a turbulent childhood. Did your parents make it clear that you had to earn their love with peak performance? Did you grow up in the midst of chaos that made you overcorrect or fear messing up? This need for perfection in all things will push you to the brink and may be a result of childhood trauma.

Out-of-whack sleep patterns

No matter how many years pass between you and your trauma, it can still find the power to undermine your physical wellbeing and this often manifests through sleep disruption. Have you ever described yourself as someone who has “never slept well”? While you may not be consciously dwelling on your childhood trauma, your brain is still desperately trying to process it, resolve it, and protect you from ever experiencing it again.

Struggling with emotional balance

Are you at an emotional place in your life? Are you lashing out at others, or finding that you feel more and more out of control? Childhood trauma very often leads to an inability to emotionally regulate, or self-soothe. That’s because you’re not taught how to deal with your emotions as a child, and you’re not taught how to process the negative ones. Maybe you blow up at minor irritations and have a hard time bringing yourself back down any time you get to one emotional extreme or another.

Failing to following through

Another subtle sign of childhood trauma in our adult lives can be an inability to follow through. You may leave things unfinished, or have trouble staying focused on a task or starting at all. Maybe you think you won’t be good enough, or you’re completely frozen with fear and self-doubt. Either way, you end up dropping the ball, procrastinating on tasks, and letting down yourself and those around you with your failed projects.

How we can find our way to the healing path.

Realizing the subtle signs of childhood abuse and dysfunction is only a beginning point, we can’t stop there. Once we’ve realized that there’s pain lurking in our past, we have to confront it and find ways to put it to bed once and for all. We have to learn from the past and then move on from it. We can do that by healing.

1. Learn everything that you can

Learning about childhood trauma after you’ve made peace with it isn’t enough. In order to truly heal, we have to first surround ourselves with knowledge that empower us to move forward and accept what happened. Looking for a sense of justification or validation? You won’t get it in revenge or lashing out at the world? You’ll get it with knowledge and understanding what really happened to you.

You’re not even going to be able to admit what went wrong in your childhood until you understand what childhood trauma actually looks like. It’s not limited to the bounds of physical or sexual abuse. It includes neglect, extreme emotional turmoil, and even natural events like the loss of a loved one or caretaker.

Learn everything you can about childhood trauma and the ways in which it impacts your adult life. Your relationships, your mental health, and even your physical wellbeing is touched by what happened with your parents and those you trusted throughout your adolescence. In order to see that, however, you’re going to first need to have a foundation of knowledge to reference from and build on.

2. Find your way to the present moment

Believe it or not, we don’t heal what happened in our childhood by ruminating on our past. That’s not how healing works. We have to occasionally look back at our pasts, find the lesson, and move on. The true healing happens right here in the present moment, with the decisions that we make and the ways in which we decide to treat ourselves.

In order for you to heal and gain some real control over your life, you’re going to have to learn to be present in your body and present with your emotions. One reason you’ve probably struggled to identify the symptoms you were struggling with was because you were disassociated from what was going on with your mind and with your body.

Being present is a matter of being mentally and emotionally forward in the current moment. You’re not thinking about the past and you’re not worrying about the future. You’re rooted in the here-and-now with your body and your emotions exactly as they are. It’s a state of actively listening to yourself and your environment. It’s how you tune in and figure out things like emotional and physical needs.

3. See your trauma for what it really is

Until you admit to your trauma and voice it, you’re going to struggle with it all your life. Naming our trauma for what it is does not give it new life. As a matter of fact, it can provide us with relief when we speak it to ourselves and the right people first. You have to accept what happened so that you can find the right way to heal the wound. Only then will you have a clear starting point to move from.

Name your trauma for what it is and claim it. You can’t change the past. Denying what happened won’t make the effects any less real. Allow yourself to accept what happened and accept who you are today as a result of it. Once you’re honest, you can move forward and get the help you need.

Don’t avoid your trauma and don’t downplay it. Acceptance is not forgiveness (don’t worry, you’re not there yet). It’s also not allowance or giving the people who hurt you a hall pass. It’s simply allowing yourself to embrace reality and see it for what it really is. To name your trauma for what it is says, “This is a thing that happened to me in the past.” Nothing more and nothing less.

Putting it all together…

It’s not always easy to spot the signs of childhood trauma, especially not when they are lurking on the edges of our own lives. We have to fess up to the pain in our pasts, though, so we can heal and find happiness of our own. By admitting to the way we are being impacted in the present, we can tap into better ways to heal and resolve what was. Want to let go of the shadows in your childhood. Be honest with yourself and commit to mindful action.

Arm yourself with knowledge and give yourself a solid base to build from on your road to healing and self-recovery. Ground yourself in the present and learn how to process your feelings here in the present moment without running away from them. Then name your trauma for what it is. Claim what happened to you in the past, but know it does not define who you are in this moment. Build a thriving support system and anchor it around an experienced mental health professional who can help you to safely peel back the layers. Lean into a self-care routine and learn to honor your body and your boundaries. No one has a right to your space or your happiness. Take some time to give yourself both and find your healing in that space.

  • Danese, A., & van Harmelen, A. (2017). The hidden wounds of childhood trauma. European Journal Of Psychotraumatology, 8(sup7), 1375840. doi: 10.1080/20008198.2017.1375840
  • De Bellis, M., & Zisk, A. (2014). The Biological Effects of Childhood Trauma. Child And Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics Of North America, 23(2), 185-222. doi: 10.1016/j.chc.2014.01.002

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