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What Sort of Events Lead to Complex Trauma?

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Events that cause complex trauma are usually prolonged, severe exposure to interpersonal trauma.  Examples include:

Interpersonal trauma

  • Childhood sexual abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Emotional abuse

Prolonged trauma

  • Neglect by parent/caretakers
  • Child soldiers
  • Human trafficking victims

Multiple events (least likely)

  • Parent’s divorce, followed by death of family member and resulting attachment issues
  • Serious illness accompanied by other losses or events

Usually events resulting in complex trauma occur in childhood while an individual’s personality and coping abilities are still developing.  Children don’t had the same coping abilities that adults do and if they lack support, or models of healthy coping, they may respond in ways that aren’t healthy and adaptive, resulting in trait-like symptoms (discussed in the next post). The International Society of Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS) shares that adult-onset trauma is rare, but can happen in extreme cases of prolonged, interpersonal trauma, like refugees or individuals exposed to torture or genocide (p. 7).

Many studies report that girls and women are more likely to be victims of sexual assault and child sexual abuse.  Men and boys are more likely to be exposed to accidents, nonsexual assaults, witnessing death or injury, disaster or fire, and combat or war. Studies also suggest that women are less likely to experience what are called “potentially traumatizing events.”

The problem with this type of measurement is that the types of “potentially traumatizing events” that men and boys report are stand out events—accidents, disasters, fires, war.  They’re easy to remember and to report.  The types of events that women experience tend to be considered routine and it can be a long time, if ever, that women see these abusive events as abusive.  It is extremely common for childhood survivors of sexual violence that I work with to consider their upbringing standard and only later when stories emerge of extreme verbal abuse or neglect do we both realize how their childhood may have impacted them. It’s not that they forgot the events, they just didn’t realize that not everyone was treated that way. When children are young, their experiences are totally normalized and only much later to many people realize that other families are different. Therefore, women who are asked whether they were abused, may answer “no,” giving a false negative response. This is also important to remember when we look at symptoms—women are more likely than men to develop PTSD after the same type of incident—so a car accident, combat trauma or a rape.  Could this hidden history of trauma play a role?

In the next post, we’ll look at symptoms of complex trauma and other types of diagnoses and dispositions that professionals and society give to survivors.

What Sort of Events Lead to Complex Trauma?

Sara Staggs, LICSW, MPH

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APA Reference
Staggs, S. (2014). What Sort of Events Lead to Complex Trauma?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 23, 2018, from


Last updated: 12 May 2014
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 12 May 2014
Published on All rights reserved.