Childhood Trauma Could Lead To Anger In Adulthood, Study Finds


According to research presented at the European Congress of Psychiatry in Paris on March 25, 2023, people with depression and anxiety that had a traumatic childhood are more likely to grow up to be angry adults.

Lead author and PhD student from Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands, Nienke de Bles, says, “Our most important finding is that childhood trauma in general was associated with all aspects of anger, both feelings and expressions, including a dose-response relationship. This means that the more traumatic the childhood, the angrier the adult.”

Clinical psychologist at Duke Health in Durham, North Carolina, Stephanie Hargrove, PhD, explains that the relationship between childhood traumatic experiences and anger truly makes sense and is seen in previous research. Notably, Dr. Hargrove was not involved in the study.

She says, “When someone experiences trauma in childhood, it’s often a situation where their power was taken away, or they were not allowed to voice what they felt or what they needed. These individuals were likely put in a situation that was painful or very wrong, and it’s appropriate to have anger at those kinds of situations.”

However, she also shares that anger shouldn’t be seen as bad. She adds, “It serves a purpose, and it can be used in effective ways. When anger is suppressed or dismissed, that’s when we see it can end up being turned into aggression or attacks on other people; it’s important for people to be able to process anger in a healthy way.”

More Trauma Associated with Being Angrier as an Adult

Using data from the Netherlands Study of Depression and Anxiety, investigators began researching in 2004 to look at the course of depression and anxiety disorders over a period of many years. The current study had 2,300 participants between the ages of 18 and 65 with an average age of 42, with 66 percent being female.

Previously, the researchers found that over 40 percent of patients that had both anxiety and depression had tendencies towards anger as compared to around 5 percent of a control group with no depression or anxiety.

First, the researchers did a four-hour baseline assessment, after which they followed up four times throughout an eight-year period to uncover any history of childhood trauma. These include parental loss, parental divorce, or being placed in foster care. They also asked participants whether they experienced any neglect, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.

According to the authors, ‘all kinds of childhood trauma – aside from sexual abuse – were associated with higher levels of anger, and a higher prevalence of anger attacks and antisocial personality traits in adulthood, independent of depression and anxiety.’

As stated by de Bles in a press release, “We found that anxious or depressed people with a history of emotional neglect, or physical or psychological abuse, were between 1.3 and 2 times more likely to have anger problems. We also found that the more traumatic the childhood experience, the greater the tendency towards adult anger.” However, while some findings don’t necessarily prove that trauma causes anger, the link is clear she says.

The findings also suggest that children who suffered from emotional neglect also had an higher tendency to become irritable or easily angered adults. Meanwhile, those who suffered physical abuse at the hands of others also had a higher tendency to have anger attacks or antisocial personality traits, says de Bles.

“Sexual abuse tended to result in a suppression of anger, possibly because of a greater sensitivity to rejection — but this needs to be confirmed,” she said.

It’s Okay to Be Angry Depending On the Circumstances

“Of all the emotions, anger can have some stigma and connotations around it. In the U.S., there are different levels of acceptability about who can express anger and under what circumstances,” says Dr. Hargrove.

She explains that for instance, if someone expresses their anger toward a competitor who stole his business idea, or possibly a politician who was angry about something they believe is wrong in the political system, that’s normally supported or at least accepted by the public.

However, displays of anger are not considered acceptable to all groups of people, she says.

“For example, there’s an insidious ‘angry Black woman’ stereotype that characterizes Black women as generally angry and unreasonable. As a result, when Black women express appropriate anger at injustices or wrongs, they are often judged more harshly, or they’re more easily dismissed for having these valid feelings when compared to white women,” says Hargrove.

In general, women are often told to think that anger isn’t necessarily appropriate or ladylike. Dr. Hargrove says, “So women may not feel the same kind of freedom to express their emotions, especially anger.”

‘Healthy Anger’ Exists

Dr. Hargrove also shares that anger may be healthy and appropriate in certain situations. She explains, “Anger is no different from other emotions such as sadness, fear, and happiness in that it isn’t ‘bad’ or ‘good.’ All emotions are useful and serve different functions.”

She says that sometimes, anger comes from feelings of injustice, power being taken away, hurt, or pain. And when it happens, it’s an important signal to pay attention to. Dr. Hargrove goes on to iterate, “Anger can come up on its own, but it’s often a secondary emotion and not a primary emotion.”

What this means is that sometimes, there may just be another emotion that’s more key to what someone may be feeling, however, their anger covers it up. She explains, “For example, someone who loses their job might be very sad about that loss, but it might come out as anger toward their still-employed former coworkers.”

In addition, anger may also be associated with other disorders like PTSD, depression, and anxiety, she says. “You may not know exactly where it’s coming from, and that’s why it’s helpful to see a therapist. A profession can help you understand both the anger responses and the root cause behind them, as well as recommend the appropriate treatment,” says Dr. Hargrove.

It’s Harmful to Bottle Up Anger

Dr. Hargrove shares, “Bottling up anger comes at cost — it’s not a helpful strategy in the long run.” She also says that while it may help people avoid conflict in the short term, ‘emotions that aren’t expressed can pile up.’

In some cases, the person can end up “exploding” with a level of anger that’s disproportionate to the actual situation, says Hargrove. “And that’s not what we want,” she adds.

For others, pent up anger “can erode you from the inside out,” she says. “These individuals can have self-hatred, be very self-critical, or have depression or other disorders because of the anger directed inward,” she says.

Processing and Reflecting On When You Feel Anger Can Bring About Positive Change

According to Dr. Hargrove, when someone feels anger, they should check in with themselves rather than pushing that emotion to the side. One way to do this is through journaling.

“Write down what you feel and why. Allow yourself a moment to process without judging the emotion or getting upset with yourself for being angry in the first place. Remember, sometimes anger makes sense. It can empower you to make a change or address an issue that needs addressing,” she says.

For example, if an issue at work has ignited your fury, write down your thoughts and make a plan to meet with higher management once you’ve had a chance to reflect, says Hargrove. “Use your anger to advocate for yourself or others.”

Anger Treatments

“If someone with a history of trauma begins to realize they have a lot of anger, addressing the trauma with a professional would be a good place to start. Likely the anger is related to those experiences and will dissipate when they get the appropriate treatment,” she says.

Dr. Hargrove shares that there are evidence-based treatments that may help people who are experiencing anger connected to childhood trauma.Cognitive processing therapy and prolonged exposure therapy have been shown to be effective in reducing symptoms in people with PTSD,” she says.

She also adds that cognitive behavioral therapy and emotion-focused therapy may also help managing and better understanding anger.