Objective: To investigate the association between childhood life events, childhood trauma and the presence of anxiety, depressive or comorbid anxiety and depressive disorders in adulthood. Method: Data are from 1931 adult participants in the Netherlands Study of Depression and Anxiety (NESDA). Childhood life events included divorce of parents, early parental loss and 'placed in care', whereas childhood trauma was assessed as experienced emotional neglect, psychological, physical and sexual abuse prior to age 16. Results: Childhood life events were not associated with psychopathology, except for 'placed in care' in the comorbid group. All types of childhood trauma were increasingly prevalent in the following order: controls, anxiety, depression, and comorbid group (P < 0.001). The higher the score was on the childhood trauma index, the stronger the association with psychopathology (P < 0.001). Conclusion: Childhood trauma rather than childhood life events are related to anxiety and depressive disorders. The strong associations with the comorbid group suggest that childhood trauma contributes to the severity of psychopathology. Our study underscores the importance of heightened awareness of the possible presence of childhood trauma, especially in adult patients with comorbid anxiety and depressive disorders. © 2009 John Wiley & Sons A/S.