Five Signs of Untreated Childhood Trauma

childhood trauma Nov 28, 2022

By Katie Honeywell, LPCMH, NCC

Do you have personality traits that you or others in your life feel strongly about? Most of us do. Chances are these traits have been with you for a long time. They can be signs of untreated trauma. One way I can spot childhood trauma in adults is where these traits fall in our nervous system and how it shows up day to day.

Have you heard of polyvagal theory developed by Stephen Porges (2011)? The pieces from polyvagal theory important for learning here are the three areas of the nervous system. The sympathetic system is one, and it activates hyperarousal states of fight or flight behaviors. The dorsal vagal system shuts the body down into a hypoarousal freeze response as it realizes there are very few options for survival and attempts to conserve energy. Polyvagal theory adds our social engagement system, which is a mixture of activation and calming. The social engagement system is where people feel safe, connected, and ready to experience the world. We experience feelings in our ventral vagal or social engagement zone, but only an amount we can tolerate to still process information and move through life. If our body senses danger we use fight, flight, or freeze depending on how we perceive the threat.

What if I told you I could place any of your personality traits into one of these three categories? Remember, it’s how these traits show up as well. Let’s start with five signs in your personality that may mean you have some leftover survival strategies from traumatizing experiences.

  1. “People pleasing” can be a sign of untreated trauma. Frequent thoughts associated with this behavior are “I don’t want to be a burden” or “don’t make them angry.” You may hear this person struggling with naming their needs, over apologizing, hyper vigilant of disapproval or anger. If too much of a burden they fear being unwanted or in danger. I am going to add a new term to fight, flight or freeze. Many therapists know this as fawning. I can see this from a flight perspective, fleeing from our personal needs in order to be accepted by others or avoid the abuse from a loved one.
  2. Do you know anyone who is really funny? Maybe they make sarcastic jokes too often, too soon or at an inappropriate time? I’ve made some great jokes at a funeral and too often when meeting someone for the first time. Some people start using humor to distract from an uncomfortable situation like academic pressure, peer acceptance, emotional release, or to entertain a parent experiencing tough emotions. People use humor to stay in our safe, social engagement system. Humor is powerfully reinforced through social acceptance, smiles, laughter, and doses of dopamine. It is healthy to have a sense of humor. If you feel like it has a mind of its own, hurts others, or leaves you feeling bad, take some time being curious about the roots of this trait belonging to the fight, flight, or fawning system.
  3. Secret Keeping. In theory, this is flight zone activity. Flight is a way of avoiding danger. If a family can avoid talking about abuse, socially unacceptable activity, alcoholism, we also avoid shame, guilt, anxiety allowing us to stay in our social engagement system. If our grandparents kept secrets, our parents may have been told to keep a secret or at least received cues not to talk about certain topics. People learn it is safer to keep a secret than losing family or having conflict. The thought may change slightly depending on the family circumstance. Unfortunately, some people want secrets in order to continue unhealthy behaviors. Others are trying to feel ok in a painful world. The relief felt in replacement of embarrassment or stress reinforces the behavior to grow. If secret keeping is impulsive, often or used to avoid healthy conflict this is likely a consequence of untreated trauma.
  4. Yelling can be found in our fight zone and so can frequent irritability. This can be true for people that have experienced complex trauma stemming from childhood, later onset or single event trauma. This is a hyper arousal defensive state often learned through behaviors they have seen in others, lack of co-regulation in a caregiver, found by accident but reinforced through avoiding unwanted feelings or danger.
  5. Smartphone scrolling as a way to dissociate from intense feelings or feel good. The combination of mindless scrolling and numbing falls into the dorsal vagal, shut down zone. Countless memes exist illustrating this relationship at night or early morning. Dopamine, emotional avoidance and easy access can reinforce this behavior.

These behaviors are what happens when trauma goes untreated, and they stick with us the more people engage with them. When behaviors are reinforced by avoidance of perceived pain, death, fear, or social isolation, they are more likely to grow into lifelong personality traits. These traits have memory networks, triggers, images, and thoughts associated with them. They produce endorphins and relief sealing them into our procedural memory.

My mother tells a story that when I was about 8, I had testing done at school. After about 45 minutes the reading specialist returned. She smiled and told my mom that she had never experienced anything like it. I told the specialists jokes the entire assessment. In my mind, I was special and hilarious. This could probably be one of my touchstone memories. That day I made my mother happy and learned to avoid uncomfortable test anxiety. To this day, if my mother laughs at me my heart is filled.

Many people come to therapy with shame related behaviors they would like to change for themselves or their loved ones. People fight these parts of themselves because they often feel extreme. Humor can take away from an emotionally needed moment, and hurt someone’s feelings unintentionally. Secret keeping can allow unhealthy abusive dynamics, people pleasing can deter someone from getting their needs met, excessive use of electronics can lead to academic issues or disconnection from loved ones, and yelling can be hurtful or damaging. I get the desire to change these behaviors, but I also have great compassion and gratitude for them. They helped us, as children, feel safe in a scary world. They were determined to get us back to our social engagement zone.

Another theory helpful for a clinician is Internal Family Systems (IFS), developed by Richard Swartz (2018). You may have received a flyer about IFS in the mail or heard terms like protectors and exiles in a consultation group. I found IFS by accident when I wanted to become a couples and family therapist for a moment in time. It planted a seed. There are many different theories similar to IFS, like egostate therapy or structural dissociation. Swartz developed IFS as he started meeting secret keepers, jokesters, people pleasers, parts struggling with anger within his clients. He realized people who have lived with complex trauma growing up developed significant parts in their personality in order to survive. These parts carried the burden of avoiding painful emotions with tools like perfectionism, self harm, substance use, humor, and so on.

What do we do now?

Take a look at your relationship with these traits. If one feels extreme or is causing pain in your life, talk to a trained therapist. If you are a therapist realizing your clients are describing an internal conflict related to their personality traits, perhaps IFS or another egostate therapy can be incorporated into your preparation phase of trauma reprocessing—especially if you are working with folks that have experienced complex trauma. As a trauma therapist, to know your own parts and how childhood trauma shows up in your life today can help you understand your clients and make your life fuller.

For most of my clients, we spend time getting to know our parts, how they help us, the conflict with other parts, and the new relationship that may be needed. For other clients, we spend more time here learning about complex systems before moving on to reprocessing trauma. If you are curious about adding parts/ego state work to your skills set and have more questions, join us in consultation at the EMDR Circle.

I can’t imagine NOT cracking a joke to lighten the mood from time to time, but I have found it helpful to understand where it came from and process the not-so-great emotions that triggered their existence. 

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Porges, S. W., Porges, S. W., & Porges, S. W. (2011). The polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, and self-regulation. First Edition ; the pocket guide to the polyvagal theory: The transformative power of feeling safe. first edition. W.W. Norton & Company.

Schwartz, R.C. and Sweezy, M. (2019) Internal Family Systems therapy, Second edition. New York, NY: Guilford Publications.


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