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How Complex Trauma Affects Children

Complex trauma results from repeated traumatic experiences. It usually begins early in life with the child's caregiver. Affecting the child's development, thoughts about themselves, and their ability to have relationships. Children whose homes were not safe may create ways that allow them to survive day-to-day. When the child is safe, their survival tactics are no longer useful. These tactics can interfere with their ability to live and love.

This article will help you understand complex trauma in your own life or in the lives of children you care for. Remember, therapy and coaching are important tools in recovering from complex trauma. You got this! Our therapists are always here for you.

Effects of Complex Trauma

Attachments & relationships

Our early relationships with our caregivers affect us more than we know. It can affect how we trust, balance emotions, sense the world as safe or not, and understand our own value. A child with complex trauma can have a hard time with friendships, and authority figures.

Physical Health

When a child grows up afraid or under constant stress, their body may not grow to its full ability. The body can respond to normal levels of stress as if it is under extreme stress. There is a connection between childhood trauma exposure, high-risk behaviors, and chronic illness.

Emotional Responses

Children with complex trauma have a hard time understanding, expressing, and managing emotions. They can feel depressed, anxious, angry, overwhelmed from internalizing or externalizing their emotions. Reminders of their traumatic events can be anywhere. They may react to these reminders or become numb to them and threats in their environment.


When children have an overwhelming or scary experience, they may mentally separate themselves. They can think of themselves as separated from their bodies. They could also lose the memory of what happened to them. They don’t dissociate on purpose it becomes a defense mechanism. It can look like they aren't paying attention or daydreaming.


Children with complex trauma may be easy to trigger and are likely to have intense reactions. They can struggle with knowing how to calm down and lack impulse control. Because of this, they may seem unpredictable. A child who feels powerless may be defensive or aggressive. Especially when they assume they are being blamed or attacked. They can also be very compliant with adults.

Cognition: Thinking and Learning

When children grow up with constant threats, they only think about survival. They may have issues reasoning, problem-solving, keeping attention, and thinking about the future. They can also have issues with gaining new skills or information. They may have a hard time with language development and other learning difficulties.

Self-Concept and Future Orientation

Children learn their self-worth from the reactions of others. Caregivers have the greatest influence on a child’s sense of self-worth and value. Children with complex trauma may feel shame, guilt, low self-esteem, and poor self-image.


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