Childhood is undoubtedly the most significant period in human life, which is characterized by the comprehensive development and acquisition of fundamental skills and knowledge needed to live in society. Particularly, in this stage, individuals are inclined to experience various life events, especially dangerous and frightening ones, most intensively, which leaves an indelible imprint on their personalities. This paper aims at examining the effect of childhood traumas on adulthood, including cognitive abilities, social behavior, and mental health, through the prism of scientific evidence. The paper will also consider the association between traumatic events and different psychological disorders, research-based treatment methods, familial and social contexts, and possible governmental responses.
Background and Overall Situation
Children may have various experiences that can be associated with specific trauma. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) determines child trauma as “The experience of an event by a child that is emotionally painful or distressful, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects” (“What is Childhood Trauma?”). Childhood trauma usually occurs when individuals witness or is subjected to overwhelming, sometimes shocking, or prolonged adverse events or phenomenon in childhood. Specifically, when encountering a traumatic event, children may feel horror, stupor, persistent fear, anxiety, or depression, helplessness, and even physiological reactions such as vomiting or strong heart pounding.
Traumatic experiences may stem from diverse situations, including natural and technological calamities, community and family violence, sexual or psychological abuse, terrorism, life-threatening illness, and the loss of a relative or loved one. According to the most recent research, it has been calculated that approximately one billion children aged between 2 and 17 faced severe forms of violence every year, comprising over half of all children globally (“Research Brief”). The highest rates belong to Asia and Northern America, accounting for 64 and 56 percent respectively. In addition, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) revealed that around 13 percent of Australian adults (2.5 million) have experienced childhood maltreatment (“Characteristics and Outcomes”). This evidence exhibits the wide prevalence of childhood abuse in different countries, including developed ones.
The psychodynamic perspective focuses on studying the role of the unconscious mind, social relationships, and childhood experience in an individual’s life. Sigmund Freud considered that the psyche comprises three components, namely, the id, the ego, and the superego. The superego is the aspect of the mind, which is associated with an individual’s morals and ideas, while the id is centered on the primal wishes, that is, instincts. The ego is the facet of the psyche, which primarily deals with the real world’s demands.
The conflicts that occur among these three parts of the mind shape and affect personality. Freud considered that individuals’ behaviors are primarily formed by the unconscious mind that contains a vast amount of covered material experienced earlier, especially in childhood (Lazaratou 2). In particular, he believed that almost all types of neurosis result from previous traumatic experiences and that many hysteric patients suffer from disturbing and distressing memories. Therefore, in psychodynamic theory, the aftermath of sexual or other traumas is considerably associated with the onset of mental diseases in adulthood.
Early Trauma and Consequences
The Freudian view on the correlation between childhood traumatic experiences and problems in adulthood was consequently supported by numerous studies. Childhood trauma is highly likely to increase the risk of multiple psychological disorders, primarily posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and attachment issues. For example, a study by Tognin and Calem (255) shows that 65.6 percent of individuals with psychosis experienced a particular extent of early trauma. The authors also specify that persons with childhood trauma mostly have lower educational achievements. Besides, a large-scale meta-analysis, embracing 192 studies and 68,830 individuals in total, proves that depression is tightly related to emotional maltreatment in childhood (Humphreys et al. 1). Thus, there is abundant evidence demonstrating the association between early traumatic experiences and mental wellbeing.
Besides, childhood trauma can also have a substantial influence on cognitive performance and the possibility of substance abuse. A systematic review by Dauvermann Donohoe has found that patients who experienced early trauma demonstrated more significant cognitive deficit and chronic bipolar disorder than patients without such a history (6). Two-decade research has revealed that, in addition to adult mental illness, childhood trauma considerably contributes to the occurrence of addictions, especially from alcohol and drugs, and physical disorders, including insomnia, obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer (Zarse et al. 5). Finally, it is worth noting that traumatic experiences can be transmitted from mothers who encountered adverse events during pregnancy to their children. A recent study by Choi et al. concluded that females with childhood trauma were exposed to a higher risk for postpartum depression, which caused unfavorable outcomes for their infants’ development and attachment (2). Therefore, as ample evidence shows, childhood trauma can have a multi-faceted and considerable effect on individuals’ adulthood and their relatives and communities.
The treatment of childhood trauma should be primarily directed at mitigating the symptoms and causes of PTSD, persistent or recurrent depression, anxiety, or psychosis and improving patients’ wellbeing. This typically necessitates individualized, patient-centered treatment approaches that consider children’s characteristics, environmental circumstances, and the type and severity of trauma. Specifically, the circumstances imply where specific traumatic events happen, for instance, in school, home, community, or peer milieu, while patients’ characteristics include their sex, age, and internal traits and predispositions.
It is worth noting that early insignificant intervention and support of family members and caregivers can help avert long-term harm. However, in most cases, patients frequently need professional care and trauma-targeted therapy. Clinicians possess many evidence-based and effective treatment methods, such as psychodynamic or neurobiological approaches, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and others. For example, trauma-focused psychodynamic therapy (TF-PDT) primarily highlights ego functioning, the decision-making component of identity that closely interacts with the real world (Leichsenring et al. 3). This method attempts to teach patients good interpersonal relationships and affect regulation, that is, controlling their desires and emotions. In addition, therapists can apply imaginative techniques to enhance a child’s inner work, awareness, and mentalization.
Trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) is worth special attention since it was explicitly elaborated for treating PTSD in children and adolescents. TF-CBT allows for addressing a wide variety of conditions and their symptoms by following a step-by-step process and strengthening persons’ mindfulness. The study by Deblinger et al. has proved that individuals undergoing TF-CBT have less emotional reactivity, increased sense of mastery, and improvements concerning the depressive state (2). The improved form of CBT is STAIR Narrative Therapy (SNT) aiming at training patients in interpersonal and emotional skills (Leichsenring et al. 3). SNT includes over ten prolonged sessions that can be easily repeated in the future in case of need. Additionally, Leichsenring et al. indicate that psychotherapists are required to have advanced psychotherapeutic training complying with the national guidelines (3). These models also involve patients and their parents or caregivers to create a safe and conducive environment.
In addition to psychological therapy, pharmacological methods can be employed, which assume the use of specific medications. Targeting depressions, anxiety, and PTSD, these drugs mainly comprise anti-depressants, sedatives, tranquilizers, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI), or those based on γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA). In this regard, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) recommends using venlafaxine, paroxetine, fluoxetine, and sertraline, noting that every individual has a diverse reaction to a particular medication and its dosage (“Medications for PTSD”). The APA also adds that topiramate can be another medication of the anti-epileptic category with considerable potential for treating PTSD. Nevertheless, pharmacological treatment should serve as a supplementary medium rather than first-line therapy.
Government Reaction and Support
The national governments are the first subjects who should provide an adequate response to the widespread occurrence of childhood trauma. The reason is chiefly connected with the socioeconomic burden placed by this issue on particular communities and the overall population, thereby noticeably thwarting society’s prosperity. According to the recent research that partly considers intangible costs, the US estimated financial burden of children’s maltreatment amounts to $2 trillion per year (Peterson et al. 1). However, this estimation presents approximate cost since it does account for all effects of child abuse. For instance, children who experienced a particular trauma are more predisposed to adult criminality, prolonged or life-long mental problems, and poor educational or career attainments. These factors are usually challenging or sometimes impossible to calculate.
Indeed, the most effective measure for preventing and mitigating the consequences of childhood trauma is the establishment and sufficient maintenance of child welfare agencies (CWAs). These public organizations are directed at delivering four essential services, namely, family-centered support, child protection investigation, care fostering, and adoption. CWAs operate 24 hours a day, 7 days per week, to provide child protection and counteract their abuse and neglect. They also draw public attention to this problem by collecting and demonstrating data and histories about maltreatment and engaging necessary resources to meet the needs of those affected.
However, apart from CWAs, governments’ activity should have a broader scope primarily by addressing the diverse problems of minor communities. The point is that most childhood maltreatment occurs in disadvantaged families that sometimes do not possess all essentials, including home, job, food, clean water, clothing, appropriate education, and healthcare. This situation significantly conditions increased criminality among minorities, especially domestic violence, parents’ substance abuse, severe bullying, and drug distribution. In this regard, federal and local bodies bear direct responsibility for improving the conditions of poverty-stricken people and providing equal opportunities for education and healthcare. Measures on the enhancement of this population strata will compulsorily lead to a decrease in child maltreatment incidents.
The paper has explored the effect of childhood traumas on individuals’ lives, including cognitive abilities, social behavior, and mental health, through a psychodynamic perspective and scientific evidence. As most research demonstrates, childhood trauma tends to provoke PTSD, depression, and attachment or addiction issues. Besides, it can contribute to the development of obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer. Herewith, the treatment presents the best outcomes when it is applied at the early stage, with the active engagement of parents or caregivers and in conjunction with specific medications. In summary, governmental support can markedly reduce the number of childhood maltreatment by providing CWAs and community-targeted measures.
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