Understanding childhood trauma as an adult

Collaborator: Alexie Foster
Published: 03/25/2023, 1:54 AM

(NATIONAL) We’re born, we grow up. Simple, right? When it comes to the brain, not so much. The brain is the most complex organ within the human body, and the development of lifelong systems begins even before we are born. 

It’s said that this time in the womb as well as a child’s first three years are the most crucial to brain development, affecting all future learning, behavior, and health. The human brain doesn’t finish developing until mid-to-late 20s.

Trauma, described by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) as an event or circumstance resulting in physical harm, emotional harm and/or life-threatening harm, hinders brain development in children. 

When it comes to childhood trauma, it’s important to consider the needs a child has in those formative years to better understand types of events that might register as traumatic in the young brain. Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist, created a widely accepted theory known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that categorizes those needs into different levels.

Maslow’s five areas of need build upon one another. They include Physiological needs (at the bottom), Safety needs, Belongingness, Esteem, and Self-Actualization (at the top). When one or more of these is not met, the functioning of an individual suffers. When one or more of these is not met in childhood, it disrupts healthy development.

Physiological needs refer to basic needs for survival. This includes food, water, shelter, and clothing. It also includes clean breathing air and adequate sleep.

Children growing up in poverty often go without one or more of these needs. Unfortunately, without these basic needs, it can be very difficult for a child to focus on the learning process at school. Their young brains are more concerned about basic survival. 

Safety needs refer to feeling physically and emotionally safe in an environment, as well as having good health. For a child growing up in a physically or emotionally abusive environment, their learning abilities might be limited because their brain is in survival mode. A child who experiences chronic illness might also feel unsafe in their own body, which can result in medical or health trauma and can create a belief that one cannot even rely on their own body.

While these basic needs are at the bottom of the hierarchy, confidence is second to the top. Learning is considered to be at the very top. In addition to other adverse health effects, a child living with current or unresolved trauma, not having their basic needs met, may adopt the belief they are unintelligent because they’re unable to grasp certain concepts, or hit developmental milestones. This child could then grow up limiting themselves because they don’t believe they have the ability to pursue or achieve certain things, when in actuality their young brain was really experiencing the trauma of not having their basic needs met. 

Belongingness, the center of the hierarchy, refers to belonging in a relationship. For children, this starts with the type of relationship and attachment they have with their initial caregivers. When a child doesn’t feel loved, secure, and safe with their initial caregivers, it creates trust issues in developing other relationships with peers, teachers, and other community members. As the child grows and becomes an adult, it can make healthy, secure friendships and intimate relationships difficult to establish.

Esteem refers to the esteem of oneself. This oftentimes is boosted when achievements are made and confidence levels are up. There is a strong correlation between being able to problem solve and having healthy self-esteem. Children who are not allowed to explore and pursue their own solutions to problems can be left feeling inadequate or incapable, which can keep them from trying new things and pursuing areas of interest they might otherwise be interested in.

Self-Actualization, the top of the hierarchy, refers to the awareness someone has of themselves. It includes an understanding of how someone thinks, feels, behaves and aids in better decision making in life. This level is where people have the ability to explore and develop their morals and pursue creative endeavors. Without the previous needs being met, this stage is extremely difficult to experience. 

Thankfully, people whose childhoods lacked in any of these areas are not resigned to experiencing difficulty for the rest of their lives. It’s true that lacking in any of these areas can make things more difficult, but that doesn’t have to be the end of the story. Through awareness and active dedication to change, it is possible to heal and resolve areas of trauma created by lack of needs being met. 

Working with a certified trauma therapist is the best way to overcome these difficulties related to childhood trauma. Not all therapists are certified in trauma, and it’s not always enough to be trauma trained or trauma informed. A certified trauma therapist will have extensive training in working with clients on trauma issues. There are several websites you can visit that allow you to put in specific search items to find a therapist, including therapyden.com, meetmonarch.com, and psychologytoday.com.

Additionally, you might be interested in joining the Release the Stress Group Coaching Program. This virtual group training guides people into an active healing approach from trauma through various exercises and methods. You can learn more and sign up for the program here.

This story is the first story in a three-part trauma education publication, as part of VNN’s 2023 FATE Learning Series: Trauma Informed Business Development. Alexie Foster will be a guest speaker at the 2023 FATE in-person event in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, on April 20, 2023. Don’t want to wait for FATE for trauma tips? Request access to Alexie’s free grounding series. To register for free tickets to the 2023 FATE in-person event or take part in the series online, visit the FATE webpage


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