Seven of the Most Serious Childhood Traumas

The most serious childhood traumas leave dormant traces that continue to have an effect in adulthood. They're deeply embedded in the mind and heart and manifest as discomfort, disorders, or difficulties in achieving a full life. Here are seven of the worst.
Seven of the Most Serious Childhood Traumas
Sergio De Dios González

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Sergio De Dios González.

Written by Edith Sánchez

Last update: 14 March, 2023

The most serious childhood traumas usually derive from situations in which children perceive that their lives or those of significant people around them are in danger. More specifically, their mother or father.

Childhood traumas can leave scars that last a lifetime, especially if they’re severe. Their intensity varies according to the degree of damage perpetrated, its frequency, the age at which it occurs, the psychological resources available, and the support provided. In this article, we explain seven of the most serious childhood traumas.

For a small child, violence is an overwhelming, uncontrollable, and terrible experience – and its emotional effects can endure for a lifetime. The trauma becomes internalized, it’s what takes hold of us in the absence of another’s empathy.”

-Stephen Grosz-

Crying boy
Traumas in childhood often have an influence throughout life.

1. Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse is one of the most serious childhood traumas. It involves actions like continued verbal violence, lack of affection, episodes of humiliation and contempt, etc.

A study conducted in 2016 showed that behaviors of this type produce changes in the brain of children.

2. Physical abuse

Physical abuse occurs when injuries occur to the child’s body as a result of aggression by an adult.

The most conservative data indicates that one in 20 people has suffered this type of abuse during their childhood. This type of abuse makes the child (and later adult) more vulnerable to external agents that can precipitate a mental or physical illness.

3. Sexual abuse

Another of the most serious childhood traumas is sexual abuse. It’s a traumatic experience that children experience as an attack on their physical and psychological integrity. Moreover, its consequences usually last throughout life.

This type of abuse includes any forced sexual conduct by an adult that invades the integrity and privacy of a minor. In fact, it must be taken into account that any sexual behavior (either with or without physical contact) toward a child is punishable by law.

4. Negligence

Abuse due to negligence or family neglect involves a lack of protection for children. Their basic needs are ignored and they’re exposed to potential risks. This deprivation of care causes physical, psychological, and social deprivation. That said, the consequences depend on the intensity of abandonment and the risk factors present in the environment.

5. Violent abuse of the mother

Children who witness violent abuse toward their mothers have an extremely high risk of exhibiting health problems. Furthermore, they’re more likely to use violence in their adult life and are more predisposed to develop disorders such as anxiety and depression. Moreover, it’s common for them to suffer strong feelings of guilt for not being able to help or save their mother.

6. Substance abuse in the home

The abuse of psychoactive substances at home is also one of the most serious childhood traumas.

The Pompidou Group, under the direction of Dr. Corina Giacomello, conducted an investigation in this regard. The study points out that these children are at greater risk of being substance users in the future. In addition, they’re more likely to suffer from mood disorders and mental health problems.

Sad girl hugging a stuffed animal
Parents who use substances also tend to display negligent behavior toward their children.

7. Imprisonment of a parent

Children who have a parent in prison not only lose the possibility of having regular contact with them but also experience higher levels of stress. Indeed, they suffer a sense of ongoing loss and often have trouble forming a coherent model of authority and family. It’s common for this to lead to attachment disorders, post-traumatic stress symptoms, or attention deficit.

What can be done?

As a rule, anyone who’s experienced one or more of these most serious childhood traumas needs professional help. As an adult, they may not notice it, but it’s those traces from the past that often prevent them from growing and moving forward in life.

Ideally, every individual who’s been subjected to such experiences should be treated as soon as possible. The earlier the situation is addressed, the more likely it is that the trauma will have less determinative effects.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Council of Europe. (s. f.). Children whose parents use drugs. Pompidou Group.
  • Cicchetti D, Hetzel S, Rogosch FA, Handley ED, Toth SL. An investigation of child maltreatment and epigenetic mechanisms of mental and physical health risk. Dev Psychopathol. 2016 Nov;28(4pt2):1305-1317. doi: 10.1017/S0954579416000869. Epub 2016 Oct 3. PMID: 27691979; PMCID: PMC5087600.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.