Sad teen child sitting alone on steps

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Trauma, abuse, and neglect — in the current cultural landscape, it’s not hard to find a myriad of discussions on these topics. But with so many people chiming in on the conversation, it’s more important now than ever to listen to what experts on the topic have to say. As we begin to understand more and more about the effects of growing up experiencing trauma and abuse, we also begin to understand that the effects of these experiences are more complex and wide-ranging than we had ever imagined.

Recent studies in the field of childhood trauma and abuse have found that these experiences can affect a wide range of aspects of our adult life. In fact, even seemingly disparate topics ranging from your stance on vaccinations to the frequency with which we experience headaches, to the types of judgments that we make about others are impacted by histories of abuse, trauma, or neglect. 

Clearly, the effects of a traumatic childhood go far beyond the time when you are living in an abusive or unhealthy environment. A recent study reports that early childhood traumas can impact health outcomes decades later, potentially following you for the rest of your life. With many new and surprising effects of childhood trauma being discovered every day, it’s no wonder that so many people are interested in what exactly trauma is and how it can affect us. 

So, what are the long-term ramifications of childhood neglect? For an answer to that question, StudyFinds sat down with Michael Menard, inventor-turned-author of the upcoming book, “The Kite That Couldn’t Fly: And Other May Avenue Stories,” to discuss the lesser-understood side of trauma and how it can affect us long into our adult lives.

Here is his list of five hidden effects of trauma, and some of them just might surprise you.  

1. Unstable Relationships

For individuals with childhood trauma, attachment issues are an often overlooked form of collateral damage. Through infancy and early childhood, a person’s attachment style is developed largely through familial bonds and is then carried into every relationship from platonic peers to romantic partners. When this is lovingly and healthily developed, this is usually a positive thing. But for children and adults with a background of neglect, it often leads to difficulty in finding, developing, and keeping healthy relationships.

As Menard explains it, a childhood spent feeling invisible left scars on his adult relationship patterns. “As a child, I felt that I didn’t exist. No matter what I did, it was not recognized, so there was no reinforcement,” he says. “As a young adult, I panicked when I got ignored. I was afraid that everyone was going to leave. I also felt that I would drive people away in relationships. I would only turn to others when I needed emotional support, never when things were good. When things were good, I could handle them myself. I didn’t need anybody.”

Childhood trauma often creates adults who struggle to be emotionally vulnerable, to process feelings of anger and disappointment, and to accept support from others. And with trust as one of the most vital components of longterm, healthy relationships, it’s clear where difficulty may arise. But Menard emphasizes that a childhood of neglect should not have to mean a lifetime of distant or unstable relationships. “A large percentage of the people that I’ve talked to about struggles in their life, they think it’s life. But we were born to be healthy, happy, prosperous, and anything that is taking away from that is not good,” he says.

“The lesser known [effects] I would say are the things that cause disruption in relationships,” Menard adds. “The divorce rate is about 60%. Where does that come from? It comes from disruption and unhappiness between two people. Lack of respect, love, trust, sacrifice. And if you come into that relationship broken from childhood trauma and you don’t even know it, I’d say that’s not well known.”

Women in argument, upset
Emotional unavailability from emotional vulnerability is a common effect from childhood neglect when it comes to relationships in adulthood. (© WavebreakMediaMicro – stock.adobe.com)

2. Physical Health Issues

The most commonly discussed long-term effects of childhood neglect are usually mental and emotional ones. But believe it or not, a background of trauma can actually impact your physical health. From diabetes to cardiac disease, the toll of childhood trauma can turn distinctly physical. “Five of the top 10 diseases that kill us have been scientifically proven to come from childhood trauma,” says Menard. “I’ve got high blood pressure. I go to the doctor, and they can’t figure it out. I have diabetes, hypertension, obesity, cardiac disease, COPD—it’s now known that they have a high probability that they originated from childhood trauma or neglect. Silent killers.”

In some cases, the physical ramifications of childhood trauma may be due to long-term medical neglect. What was once a treatable issue can become a much larger and potentially permanent problem. In Menard’s case, untreated illness in his childhood meant open heart surgery in his adult years. “I’m now 73. When I was 70, my aortic valve closed. I had to have four open heart surgeries in two months — almost died three times,” he explains. “Now, can I blame that on childhood trauma? I can, because I had strep throat repeatedly as a child without medication. One episode turned into rheumatic fever that damaged my aortic valve. 50 years later, I’m having my chest opened up.”

From loss of sleep to chronic pain, the physical manifestations of a neglectful childhood can be painful and difficult. But beyond that, they often go entirely overlooked. For many people, this can feel frustrating and invalidating. For others, they may not know themselves that their emotional pain could be having physical ramifications. As Menard puts it, “things are happening to people that they think [are just] part of life, and [they’re] not.”

3. Mental Health Struggles

Growing up in an abusive or neglectful environment can have a variety of negative effects on children. However, one of the most widely discussed and understood consequences is that of their mental health. “Forty-one percent of all depression in the United States is caused by childhood trauma or comes from childhood trauma,” notes Menard. And this connection between trauma and mental illness goes far beyond just depression. In fact, a recent study found a clear link between experiences of childhood trauma and various mental illnesses including anxiety, depression, and substance use disorders.

Of course, depression and anxiety are also compounded when living in an environment lacking the proper love, support, and encouragement that a child deserves to grow up in. For Menard, growing up in a home with 16 people did little to keep the loneliness at bay. “I just thought it was normal—being left out,” Menard says. “We all need to trust, and we need to rely on people. But if you become an island and self-reliant, not depending on others, you become isolated.”

In some cases, the impact of mental health can also do physical damage. In one example, Menard notes an increased likelihood for eating disorders. “Mine came from not having enough food,” he says. “I get that, but there are all types of eating disorders that come from emotional trauma.” 

Teen student stressed over school work
More than 2 in 5 cases of depression in the U.S. are linked to childhood trauma or neglect. (© Rawpixel.com – stock.adobe.com)

4. Acting Out

For most children, the model set by the behavior of their parents lays the foundation for their own personal growth and development. However, kids who lack these positive examples of healthy behavior are less likely to develop important traits like empathy, self-control, and responsibility. Menard is acutely aware of this, stating, “Good self-care and self-discipline are taught. It goes down the drain when you experience emotional trauma.” Children who are not given proper role models for behavior will often instead mimic the anger and aggressive behaviors prevalent in emotionally neglectful or abusive households.

My wife is a school teacher and she could tell immediately through the aggressive behavior of even a first grader that there were multiple problems,” adds Menard. However, his focus is less on pointing fingers at the person who is displaying these negative behaviors, and more about understanding what made them act this way in the first place. “It’s not about what’s wrong with you, it’s about what happened to you.” 

However, for many, the negative influence extends beyond simple bad behavior. Menard also describes being taught by his father to steal steaks from the restaurant where he worked at the age of 12. This was not only what his father encouraged him to do, but also what seemed completely appropriate to him because of how he had been raised. “I’d bring steaks home for him, and when he got off the factory shift at midnight, that seemed quite okay,” Menard says. “It seemed quite normal. And it’s horrible. Everybody’s searching to try to heal that wound and they don’t know why they’re doing it.”

5. Normalizing The Abnormal

Perhaps one of the most dangerous hidden effects of a traumatic childhood is the ease with which the abnormal (and often downright abusive) becomes seemingly normal. As Menard puts it, “as a child, all we know is our environment. So whatever that environment is, we consider it to be normal.” Once these attitudes, ideas, and behaviors are normalized, it can easily seep into countless other aspects of life. 

This is just one of the unique vulnerabilities that children growing up in abusive homes have. With no healthy reference point, many adolescents simply accept their environment as typical. “I thought it was normal that we didn’t share emotional things in our family,” says Menard. “I thought all kids had to worry about where their next meal was coming from or what it’s going to feel like to not have dinner that night, to wake up hungry. And I didn’t feel pity, I just felt hungry.”

In order to break the hold that abusive behavior has, it requires the victim to realize that this behavior was abnormal in the first place. Menard describes his own experience with this process, and how he navigated his own realization that his childhood had been riddled with abuse, neglect, and mistreatment. “I grabbed the hand of that little boy, which was myself,” he says, “walked into that house, and said to that child, ‘it’s going to be okay.’ And that was so therapeutic.”

In Menard’s upcoming book, “The Kite That Couldn’t Fly: And Other May Avenue Stories,” he explores more of the expected and unexpected sides of dealing with childhood trauma. From recognizing what trauma looks like to healing and moving forward, his reflections and expert insights are a worthwhile read for anyone interested in continuing the conversation. The book hits shelves nationwide on June 1.

book cover with image of kite and birds
“The Kite That Couldn’t Fly: And Other May Avenue Stories” by Michael Menard

Were you surprised by any of these hidden effects of childhood trauma? Do you have any to add? Please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comment section below!   

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About Anna Landry

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