If you feel like the topic of trauma—particularly childhood trauma—is popping up more and more on social media, in pop culture, and in conversation, you’re not mistaken. The subject of childhood trauma, as well as its potential to cause long-lasting impact, is getting increasing attention lately, and for good reason.
Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report highlighting how devastating childhood trauma can really be and why preventing it is so important for public health. The things that you can count as childhood trauma (also known as adverse childhood experiences or ACEs) are sadly legion.
The CDC’s report includes examples like seeing violence at home, having a family member who attempts or dies by suicide, experiencing physical or emotional neglect, growing up in a household where a parent has substance use problems or mental health issues that impact how well they can support their children, and more. The CDC reports that 63.9 percent of the 17,337 adults surveyed experienced at least one ACE like this, and 12.5 percent of the adults surveyed had been through at least four forms of childhood trauma.
While it’s obvious that growing up with these kinds of experiences can be emotionally wounding, it turns out that childhood trauma can have long-lasting physical consequences, too. The CDC’s report drew many sad and sometimes surprising connections between childhood trauma and adult health.
The more ACEs a person experiences, the more at risk they are of developing habits like smoking and heavy drinking, along with conditions like depression, asthma, diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer, the CDC explains. (In fact, the CDC noted that five of the 10 leading causes of death in the United States were associated with adverse childhood experiences in this way.) Exposure to traumatic events can also increase the risk of life challenges like unemployment and not having health insurance, both of which can impact a person’s mental and physical health in a number of ways.
If you’ve experienced childhood trauma, reading through this information might make you feel like you’re doomed to a less happy, less healthy life through no fault of your own. If you take anything away from this piece, hopefully, it’s the fact that that’s absolutely not true.
So how can adults who have experienced childhood trauma learn to effectively manage their trauma to ensure healthier, more emotionally fulfilling futures? This is exactly what Kelsei LeAnn, Psy.D., a Houston-based mental health counselor and the host of The You Effect podcast, has been grappling with in her clinical practice. It’s also what prompted LeAnn, who specializes in childhood trauma, to use social media as a way of normalizing the discussion around how the things that happen during childhood can impact how we feel and behave as adults.
Back in August, LeAnn tweeted, “your childhood is the reason why you’re the way you are now.” She didn’t expect the response, which included 10.5K retweets and 27.3K likes.
“It was kind of like a lightbulb went off,” LeAnn, whose practice had up until then focused generally on mindset, self-love, and cognitive behavioral therapy, tells SELF. After seeing the immense reaction to her tweet, she decided to prioritize helping adults unpack childhood trauma. It’s something she can speak to as both a clinician and a person who’s been through childhood trauma herself.
Here, LeAnn tells SELF about her clinical work, her commitment to helping people build better boundaries after childhood trauma, and how her own adverse childhood experiences inform her perspective.
SELF: Can you define childhood trauma for us?
LeAnn: Childhood trauma is any type of traumatic experience when you were young that has affected or shaped the way you view life, relationships, and yourself. For instance, I was bullied at school. That’s a traumatic event that shaped how I view friends and how I view confrontation as an adult.
SELF: It sounds like, even before someone can unpack childhood trauma, they have to acknowledge that an event was traumatic in the first place. Is that true?
LeAnn: Yes, but along with identifying that something is traumatic, you have to accept the fact that it happened. That’s the hiccup that I get a lot. Most people think, “Oh, my childhood wasn’t that bad.” But if you had a period that was traumatic to you, it’s really about saying, “This is what happened. And this is how I fix it,” even if you weren’t getting physically abused or anything like that. Most people don’t think that emotional and verbal abuse is still abuse.
SELF: Even during the time that you’ve started talking about childhood trauma and making this a focus of your practice, have you seen a shift in the conversation?
LeAnn: Yes. Especially in the African-American community. Trauma is like a curse word. You can’t say that your parents did something traumatic to you. They raised you. You’re supposed to respect them. But now that the conversation is becoming more relevant, more people are gaining the courage to speak up and become emotionally whole. They can set those boundaries, they can have healthy relationships, and they can heal from trauma that’s affecting them as an adult.
SELF: How did you become aware of the childhood trauma in your own life?
LeAnn: Growing up, I always felt like I had to be more, to get more attention. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized a lot about the way I view love and boundaries is tied to me feeling like, because of my family situation, I never had a chance to be a child and I was never good enough.
Because bullying was also a big part of my childhood trauma, there were a lot of things that played into me being a people pleaser, me putting other people before myself, and me not being able to take care of myself properly.
SELF: How do you avoid burnout while you’re doing this work?
LeAnn: I have a therapist. That’s a big, big reason why I can do what I do. I have somebody with whom I can release whatever I’m going through. I also don’t take clients on Mondays. Monday is my time of my week after the weekend to reset.
Taking time for myself and making myself a priority keeps me able to help people. I need time to recuperate so that I can be the best version of myself and so I can help clients become the best version of themselves.
SELF: It sounds like working through childhood trauma is an ongoing practice.
LeAnn: Yes. But I’ve also realized that setting firm, strong boundaries is what the process is really about. It’s about reprogramming yourself after the trauma. For me, I have to set clear boundaries so that I’m not still doing certain habits because of my trauma, like people-pleasing.
SELF: The CDC recently released a report explaining how childhood trauma is a public health issue. In your practice, do you see the connection between childhood trauma and health?
LeAnn: Yes, I do. Your mental health affects your physical health. Most of my clients that have childhood trauma overwork themselves in some area, like they could be super involved in school because they don’t want to deal with their problems. I think it’s a major public health problem because if your mental state is not well, your physical state probably won’t be either, and you won’t feel better.
Every client I talk to, I tell them they need to have a physical regimen to go along with therapy. You need to do something physically to take care of your body as you take care of your mind and your emotions. I, personally, try to go to the gym at least two to three times a week. But even when I can’t manage that, I just try to walk outside. If I don’t feel like going for a walk, I just go outside to get fresh air.
SELF: Do you have any advice for people who are grappling with what it means to work through their childhood trauma as adults?
LeAnn: The first step is to really realize what happened and accept it. The second step is to identify what, as an adult, triggers you. What makes you uncomfortable? What makes you depressed? What makes you anxious? What makes you sad? What makes you angry? What words make you feel betrayed? Belittled? Things like that. Identifying those triggers can help you put them in the right category. Then we can properly set those boundaries and separate facts from how we feel about past events.
It’s also super important, when it comes to childhood trauma, not to get caught up in where other people are with their own trauma. With social media, it’s so easy for people to pour out their guts and tell you their life stories. You can’t get caught up if their trauma seems worse than yours. Yours was traumatic to you. That’s important: recognizing that their story may not look like your story, but that doesn’t make your story invalid.
SELF: What would you say to someone who feels like they’ll never be able to heal from their childhood trauma?
LeAnn: Most people get overwhelmed because they’re trying to heal everything at once and quickly. Healing doesn’t happen overnight.
Pick something to focus on, and make that your most pressing issue. It could be forgiveness. It could be emotional wellness. Whatever it is, pick that. Focus on it consistently, then once you’ve made progress, focus on something else.
The problem is we try to do all these things at one time, and we get overwhelmed thinking nothing is working. But you can’t pay attention to which pot is cooking if you’re cooking with all the pots at once. Be mindful that you are only one person. Give yourself grace as you heal, and give yourself room to grow.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.