“Child abuse casts a shadow the length of a lifetime.” – Herbert Ward

Childhood trauma is a horrific experience that can affect a child’s mental and physical health for years to come—even into adulthood. It is also a grave psychosocial, medical, and public policy problem that has serious consequences, not only for its victims, but for society. In the United States, an estimated 678,000 children (unique incidents) were victims of abuse and neglect in 2018. That’s about 1% of kids annually.

Childhood trauma is an event experienced by a child that threatens their life or bodily and mental integrity. This includes experiences of direct trauma exposure, witnessing trauma, or learning about trauma that happened to a close friend or relative. Physical or sexual abuse, for example, can be clearly traumatic for children. One-time events like a car accident, natural disaster (like a hurricane), or medical trauma can take a psychological toll on children as well. Traumatic events don’t always leave physical scars, like verbal abuse, neglect, and exposure to war or domestic and community violence, but they often leave emotional and psychological ones.

This article will provide an overview of the effects of childhood trauma, then provide advice for seeking support and mitigating these effects.

Study findings show a relationship between adverse childhood experiences and negative health and well-being outcomes. In other words, as the number of adverse childhood experiences increases so does the risk for negative outcomes.

Physical Effects of Child Abuse

There is a straightforward link between physical abuse and physical health, but it is also important to recognize that maltreatment of any type can cause long-term physical consequences. 

Some long-term physical effects of abuse or neglect may occur immediately (e.g., brain damage caused by head trauma), but others may take time to emerge or become detectable.

Childhood trauma can lead to an increased risk of obesity, which may require medical intervention before it leads to other health issues.

Early childhood trauma is a risk factor for a host of medical problems, including:

  • Cardiovascular problems (e.g., heart attack and stroke)
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes

Traumatic events can affect how a child’s brain develops and can have lifelong consequences. Some of the brain areas potentially affected are the:

  • Amygdala, which is key to processing emotions
  • Hippocampus, which is central to learning and memory
  • Orbitofrontal cortex, which is responsible for reinforcement-based decision-making and emotion regulation
  • Cerebellum, which helps coordinate motor behavior and executive functioning
  • Corpus callosum, which is responsible for left brain/right brain communication and other processes (e.g., arousal, emotion, higher cognitive abilities)

Adults with childhood trauma also show biological signs of aging faster than those who have never experienced such adversity.

Psychological Effects of Child Abuse

Childhood trauma or abuse can cause a variety of psychological disorders, such as:

  • Anger and Aggression
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Poor self-esteem
  • PTSD

Disrupted brain development because of maltreatment can cause impairments to the brain’s executive functions, such as working memory, self-control, and cognitive flexibility, which is the ability to look at things and situations from different perspectives. Children who were maltreated also are at risk for other cognitive problems, including difficulties learning and paying attention.

Behavioral Effects of Childhood Trauma

Because childhood abuse, neglect, and trauma change brain structure and chemical function, maltreatment can also affect the way children behave, regulate emotion, and function socially. 

Childhood trauma increases the tendency for people to:

  • Feel lonely
  • Become dependent on alcohol and drugs
  • Engage in sexual risk-taking as they reach adolescence
  • Perpetrate violence and crime in adulthood
  • Attempt suicide

Girls and boys are different in the way child trauma or abuse influences delinquent behavior. Girls tend to express internalizing behaviors (e.g., depression, social withdrawal, anxiety), while boys tend to express externalizing behaviors (e.g., bullying, aggression, hostility) leading up to adult criminal behavior.

Although most children who have experienced abuse and neglect do not go on to abuse or neglect their own children, research suggests they are more likely to do so compared to children who were not mistreated. This cycle of maltreatment can be a result of children learning early on that physical abuse or neglect is an appropriate way to parent

The adverse childhood experiences pyramid represents how adverse childhood experiences are strongly related to development of risk factors for disease and well-being throughout the life course.

Seeking Support as an Adult Living with Childhood Trauma

It is important to consult a doctor for managing any physical or psychological symptoms resulting from childhood trauma. If you have been through a trauma, make sure you’re getting the support you need.

In addition to following medical guidance and adhering to your treatment plan, you can take further action at home. You can engage in healthy behaviors, such as having a healthy diet, ample sleep, and regular exercise.

Although maintaining a healthy diet, sleep schedule, and exercise routine may improve the quality of life, it may not be an easy option for all individuals. One alternative is to boost levels of the vital compound nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+), which is critical for metabolism and healthy aging. NMN supplementation as well as other NAD+ precursors feed into the production of NAD+, which provides cells with needed energy and is critical for healthy aging. NAD+ precursors have been shown to be safely administered in humans, which is really encouraging for future perspectives combating the effects of premature aging.

Therapeutic potential of NAD+ boosting in humans based on findings in animal studies. NAFLD, non‐alcoholic fatty liver disease; AFLD, alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Recent studies in animal studies have suggested that NAD+ levels are key to the function and survival of brain cells, which can be influenced by supplementation with NMN and other NAD+ precursors. For example, interventions in mice with NAD+ precursors have been shown to significantly normalize neuroinflammation and transmission of signals between brain cells as well as improve cognition, learning, memory, and motor function, all of which can be affected in individuals who experience childhood trauma.

Research in mice has shown that NAD+ replenishment could potentially delay or prevent metabolic disorders, including insulin resistance and hypertension, with increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart failure.

With all these exciting developments in the field of NAD+ biology, the door is fully open for new breakthroughs and translation of these remarkable preclinical results to effective interventions in humans with childhood trauma within our lifetime.