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Impact of Childhood Trauma on Personality Disorders

Linking Early Trauma to Adult Psychological Challenges

Childhood trauma can have a significant long-term impact on a person’s mental health and overall well-being. For some, personality disorders may develop as a result of trauma, causing issues with behavior and thoughts that deviate from cultural norms. These disorders can result in problems with socialization and relationships that continue well into the adult years.

This article explores the relationship between childhood trauma and personality disorders as well as the various treatment options available to help children, adolescents and adults overcome their trauma.

Childhood Trauma

Childhood trauma may be an event or a series of events that threaten or harm a child’s well-being physically, emotionally, or both.

Types of Childhood Trauma

Some of the more common types of childhood trauma include:

  • Sexual abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Domestic violence
  • Neglect
  • Natural disaster
  • Serious accidents or illness
  • Parental divorce/separation
Symptoms of Childhood Trauma

Some symptoms of trauma include:

  • Anxiety or depression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Difficulties trusting others
  • Difficulties forming relationships
  • Substance abuse
  • Self-harm and suicidal ideation
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Personality Disorders

Personality disorders are a class of mental health conditions. There are many types of personality disorders, each with its own set of symptoms.

What Are Personality Disorders?

Characterized by long-term thought and behavioral patterns that are considered unhealthy, personality disorders result in problems with relationships.


Types of Personality Disorders

While there are many personality disorders, some of the most common include:

  • Antisocial personality disorder: A person with this disorder is likely to deceive others or lie frequently.
  • Avoidant personality disorder: This disorder causes a person to feel extreme shyness and have low self-esteem, with a debilitating fear of social situations.
  • Borderline personality disorder: Individuals with borderline personality disorder tend to be unstable in relationships and have an intense fear of abandonment.
  • Narcissistic personality disorder: Narcissistic personality disorder results in a lack of empathy for others and an extreme sense of self-entitlement.
  • Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder: Individuals with this disorder are likely to be preoccupied with control, often focusing on schedules, order, or cleanliness.
What Causes Personality Disorders


The exact cause of personality disorders is unknown, but genetics and childhood trauma may be factors in their development.

Symptoms of Personality Disorders


While every disorder is different, all personality disorders are likely to have a negative effect on a person’s ability to form healthy relationships. Other symptoms may include:

  • Unusual thought patterns
  • Paranoia
  • Hesitancy to trust
  • Difficulty conveying emotions
  • Social anxiety
  • Impulsive or compulsive behavior
  • Persistent lying or theft
  • Frequent mood swings
  • Issues with self-esteem

The Link Between Childhood Trauma and Personality Disorders

Many mental health experts believe childhood trauma can play a role in the development of personality disorders. Studies have shown that the link between borderline personality disorder and childhood trauma is strong.


Exposure to Trauma

Adults who’ve been diagnosed with a personality disorder may have been exposed to severe trauma in their childhood or adolescence. That could include:

  • Being physically or sexually assaulted
  • Witnessing domestic violence
  • Being separated from a caregiver
  • Being neglected or abandoned
Developmental Impact

The ability to regulate emotions and develop executive functions, as well as to build healthy attachments relies on childhood experiences. Studies have shown that childhood trauma may negatively impact these vital functions that serve individuals throughout their school years and adulthood, resulting in possible issues with self-control, self-esteem, and emotional regulation.


Neurobiological Impact

The impact of childhood trauma on the brain is complex, but research has identified various neurobiological changes that occur in response to trauma. This includes alterations in the brain’s structure and ability to appropriately respond to stress.


Psychological Impact

Personality disorders aren’t the only thing that can result from childhood trauma — psychological symptoms and disorders can be caused as well. Those who live with the long-term effects of trauma may experience anxiety, depression, and dissociation.

Personality Disorders Associated With Childhood Trauma

The following are considered the most commonly occurring personality disorders after an individual has experienced trauma in childhood.

Borderline Personality Disorder

Borderline personality disorder is among the most common mental health conditions. Diagnosis of this condition requires a patient to meet at least five out of the following nine DSM-5 criteria:

  • Impulsiveness in two areas, such as shopping, substance abuse, gambling, or sex
  • Mood instability
  • Paranoia or dissociation under stress
  • Unstable or poor self-image
  • Issues within relationships
  • Suicidal gestures or ideation
  • Inappropriate anger and mood swings
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Feelings of emptiness
Antisocial Personality Disorder

Antisocial personality disorder occurs when a person has a disregard for the feelings of others. Individuals with this condition may engage in unlawful activities or be excessively impulsive. Diagnosis requires that the patient meets three of the following seven criteria:

  • Failure to conform to social norms
  • Deceitfulness
  • Impulsivity
  • Irritability and aggressiveness
  • Disregard for safety of self and others
  • Consistent irresponsibility
  • Lack of remorse
Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Narcissistic personality disorder is characterized by false feelings of grandiosity and a lack of empathy for others. Five out of the nine DSM-5 criteria must be met for a diagnosis:

  • Feelings of self-importance
  • Consistent fantasies of success and/or power
  • Believing that one is unique or only able to associate with other people in power
  • A constant need for excessive admiration
  • Taking advantage of others
  • Sense of entitlement
  • A lack of empathy toward others
  • Excessive envy or a belief that others are envious
  • Arrogance

Treatment for Childhood Trauma and Personality Disorders

There is hope for those who’ve suffered trauma in their childhood and have personality disorders as a result. Treatment options include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): In CBT, mental health practitioners use talk therapy to help patients change the way they think, behave, and react when remembering or reacting to trauma.
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT): DBT is a form of CBT. It helps those who experience intense emotions learn new strategies to cope with feelings, instead focusing on mindfulness and acceptance.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR is a form of psychotherapy that encourages patients to focus on their trauma while receiving bilateral stimulation. Its purpose is to reduce the emotions associated with traumatic memories.

Learn More About Trauma-Focused Therapy and Beachway

Beachway specializes in mental health, substance abuse, and dual diagnosis treatment. A variety of treatment methods are used to help patients cope with personality disorders and other mental health conditions.

Contact Beachway today for more information about treatment options.