How Therapy Helps You Work Through Childhood Trauma — Even After Reaching Adulthood

Anyone who has experienced childhood trauma knows you don’t magically “get over it” when you grow up. Problems from the past can impact your well-being in adulthood and even spill over into your relationships.


However, there are effective ways to deal with old traumas — and a big one is therapy. Despite some of the stigmas attached, getting help from a therapist is a winning move, not a failure.


Therapy for children and adults

Responses to trauma vary from person to person. Whether you feel like you’ve thoroughly responded to a traumatic event as it happens or not until long after it ends, it will most likely be a process to fully work through your experience.


Children who have experienced trauma can benefit from therapy as well. However, therapy will look different for kids, adolescents, and adults.


Adults are treated primarily with talk therapy.


Signs you may need help dealing with childhood trauma

feeling anxiety, sadness, fear, worry, anger, resentment, or irritability

crying a lot

trouble thinking clearly


nightmares or trouble sleeping

avoiding places and people or becoming isolated

physical symptoms like headache, stomach ache, tiredness, racing heart, sweating, or being easily startled


maladaptive coping (i.e. addictions, eating disorders, self-harm)

interpersonal instability

shame or distorted self-perception

Therapy for younger kids is more about the therapist observing while the child engages in therapeutic play, and initiating conversation as the child becomes more comfortable.


Teens may have therapy sessions one-on-one with a therapist, in a group of other teens, or with family members present.


Signs that a child may need therapy

Small children who experience trauma may:

wet the bed

stop talking

reenact the trauma while playing

cling to a parent or other adult

Older kids and teens may:

become disruptive

have feelings of guilt

become vengeful

Regardless of age, talking with a therapist can help you pinpoint the source of your problems and help you to develop coping skills.


What conditions can therapy help you manage?

Experiences that can cause childhood trauma include:



physical, sexual, or psychological abuse

natural disasters

community violence

domestic violence

accidents, illness, or death

experiences related to war or military service

Having ties to any of these events can lead to conditions such as depression, anxiety, obsessions, or compulsions in childhood or later in adulthood.

The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends therapy (like cognitive behavioral therapy, aka CBT, and interpersonal therapy) for children and adolescents with mild depression and a combination of therapy and medication for adolescents with moderate to severe depression.


Evidence also indicates cognitive behavioral therapy and other psychotherapies are effective for treating anxiety in children and adolescents.


In one study, children who received play therapy while hospitalized (an experience that can be traumatic) had lower levels of anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy with exposure and response prevention has also been shown to be an effective treatment for pediatric obsessive compulsive disorder.


There’s growing evidence that a type of therapy called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is an effective treatment for both children and adults who experienced complex childhood trauma (repeated traumatic events over time).


How to find helpful therapy options

According to the American Psychological Association, two simple questions can help you decide if you need therapy:


Does the problem cause distress? You spend time every week thinking about the incident, you are embarrassed by it, your quality of life is lower because of it.

Is it interfering with any part of your life? Has it impacted your professional or educational goals? Do you have to switch up how you do things because of this problem?

To find a therapist for yourself, ask your primary doctor, friends, and family for recommendations. If you have a child that needs therapy for trauma, talk with your child’s doctor, school counselor, or spiritual leader for therapist recommendations.


While social distancing is encouraged, you might wonder if it’s safe to visit a therapist’s office. It’s very likely you won’t have to. Many therapists are offering virtual sessions, and your insurance may cover it.


There are also plenty of apps to hook you up with a licensed therapist for virtual therapy. In a review of 25 studies published between 2000 and 2017, researchers concluded that internet- or telephone-based therapy is comparable to conventional in-person therapy.


Internet therapy is also usually less expensive and more widely available to people in communities without a therapist on every street corner.

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