Effects of Trauma on Behavior & Self-image

Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

Trauma can manifest in different forms such as homelessness, surviving a natural disaster, abuse, neglect, witnessing horrific violence. Learn the definition of trauma, how it affects self-image, and the behavioral consequences of traumatic experience in this lesson.

What Is Trauma?

Emma is physically abused by her parents and was sexually abused by her own uncle a year ago. She lives in a dangerous neighborhood, and, when she was eight, she witnessed a neighbor get shot in his front yard.

Trauma is an intensely painful and disturbing experience. This could include abuse, an accident, or surviving a natural disaster. Sufferers of trauma could feel an array of feelings like grief, fear, sadness, depression, and anxiety. Experience of trauma can immensely affect behavior and self-image.

About 1.3 million American children are homeless each year. Homelessness can be considered a form of trauma
Image of homeless children

Emma has experienced significant trauma in her life even though she is only 12-years-old, and the trauma will likely reflect in her self-image and behavior. When the trauma is caused by once-trusted caregivers and adult family members, it can be especially troubling to a child because that child's trust in adults, who were supposed to provide love and safety, is shattered.

Trauma, Self-Image, and Behavior


Emma's mother verbally abuses her by telling her that she is worthless and ugly. When she does something that displeases her father, like load the dishwasher the wrong way, her father will harshly and angrily beat her. Emma feels like she is walking on eggshells around her parents, trying hard to be perfect and not annoy them. After her uncle sexually abused her, she started to feel dirty and guilty for what happened.

Emma has started to think that her personality is defective, that she is unattractive, dumb, unlikeable and despicable. In other words, her self-image is completely shot due to the trauma that she has experienced. Self-image is a person's opinion of their own appearance, personality, character, and intelligence.


Emma's behavior is also immensely affected by the trauma that she has suffered. Like many who have endured trauma, Emma demonstrates:

  • Anxiety

A war veteran who has survived years of trauma witnessing people killed in war might suffer from something called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is severe emotional distress due to experiencing something traumatic. Symptoms could include anywhere from sleep and eating disturbances to horrific and terrifying flashbacks to the traumatic experience.

While many survivors of trauma never develop PTSD, a lot of them have chronic anxiety, a feeling of extreme unease and worry, sometimes accompanied by panic disorders and obsessive behaviors, due to the years of trauma. Emma, for example, is demonstrating panic attacks in the form of difficulty breathing and shaking, when she is disciplined by teachers and school administrators. Anxiety can also come in the form of sleep and eating disturbances.

  • Avoidance of others

After trauma, avoidance of others can be due to depression or anxiety, or it can be due to mistrust of others. Children like Emma who were abused by their own parents, for example, might think all adults are deceptive and harmful. So, when the school counselor met with Emma, she would not open up and instead sat there quietly, refusing to speak at all.

  • Resistance/over-compliance to authority figures

Many times, children or teens who have endured abuse trauma have difficulty respecting rules and listening to authority figures. But this is not true for all children who have endured trauma. Other children or teens who have endured trauma may become excessively eager to please adults and over-compliant.

  • Fear in speaking up for oneself

This ties into the lower self-image that victims of trauma tend to have. Emma was confused about her math lesson today, but she was fearful to raise her hand to ask questions. She didn't want to come across as dumb if classmates perceived her questions as stupid.

  • Difficulty with relationships

Emma's low self-esteem and lack of trust in others also keeps her from initiating friendships. Later, Emma may have problems with romantic relationships. She may become addicted to the attention with boyfriends, as she never got that love and attention from her parents. Emma may have a difficult time trusting her boyfriend, and may become clingy and possessive in fear of losing him.

  • Heightened stress response

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