Two new studies suggest that people carry the weight of childhood trauma into adulthood, manifesting in mental health struggles and anger.
The first study, recently presented at the European Congress of Psychiatry in Paris, found that childhood trauma affects men and women in markedly different ways. An international research team led by Dr. Thanavadee Prachason of the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands examined data collected from 791 people regarding their experiences with trauma as children.
The team also analyzed participants for mental health symptoms, including phobias, anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, interpersonal sensitivity, and others. They found that both men and women who experienced trauma as children were likely to develop mental health concerns as adults. However, the propensity toward mental illness was more profound in women than men.
Women who were victims of abuse — emotional, sexual, etc. — were more affected as adults than men who were abused as children, whereas men who experienced neglect as children were more affected than adult women with similar childhood experiences. According to Prachason, “Women who had been sexually abused in childhood had more subsequent symptoms than those who hadn’t, but this pattern wasn’t found in men.”
“Physical neglect may include experiences of not having enough to eat, wearing dirty clothes, not getting taken care of, and not getting taken to the doctor when the person was growing up. Emotional neglect may include childhood experiences like not feeling loved or important, and not feeling close to the family,” Prachason explained.
The second study, also presented at the European Congress of Psychiatry in Paris, examined the relationship between childhood trauma and anger as an adult. The research team, led by Nienke De Bles of Leiden University in the Netherlands, examined data from 2,276 people aged 18 to 65 regarding experiences of childhood neglect and abuse as well as trauma from the loss of a parent, divorce, or foster care placement. Participants were also assessed for mental health concerns and questioned about anger.
“There is surprisingly little research on anger in general,” De Bles explained. “The Netherlands Study of Depression and Anxiety is a well-established study which has produced a lot of good scientific data, but there has not been any significant work looking at the data on childhood trauma and seeing if this is linked to increased levels of anger. We have now found that there is a link.”
The team found that children who experienced neglect or abuse and developed anxiety or depression as adults were 1.3 to two times as likely to have concurrent anger issues, and more extensive trauma resulted in a higher likelihood of developing anger as an adult.
“We found that children who suffered emotional neglect had an increased tendency to grow into adults who were irritable or easily angered, whereas those who had been physically abused had a greater tendency towards anger attacks or antisocial personality traits,” De Bles said. “Sexual abuse tended to result in a suppression of anger, possibly because of a greater sensitivity to rejection — but this needs to be confirmed.”
De Bles also noted that being easily angered can have consequences in both interpersonal relationships and mental health.
“It can make personal interactions more difficult, and it can have consequences for your mental health and well-being,” the researcher said. “But people who get angry easily also have a greater tendency to discontinue psychiatric treatment, so this anger may mean that it reduces their chances of a better life.”
According to De Bles, therapy should include questions about anger, even if the patient is not showing signs of anger.
“If the person bottles the anger up, the therapist may not see it. We believe that it should be standard practice to ask depression and anxiety sufferers about anger and past trauma, even if the patient is not exhibiting current anger. Psychiatric treatments for past trauma may differ [from] treatment for current depression, so the psychiatrist needs to try to understand the cause so that they can offer the correct treatment to each patient.”