Introduction to Child Trauma
While all children experience stress at times, the majority, however, grow up in kind, loving, non-abusive families and never experience trauma. Unfortunately, there are some children that are exposed to traumatic events which often go untreated and overwhelm the child. National studies estimate that as many as 71% of all children are exposed to a potentially traumatic event by the age of 17. In Connecticut, providers and the Department of Children and Families (DCF) estimate that 60—80% of all children have experienced at least one potentially traumatic event.
Trauma refers to an overwhelming, unanticipated danger or event that cannot be mediated or processed by the individual. Traumatic events are a direct threat to a person’s well-being. When confronted with trauma, a child may not have the ability to cope with the experience. Traumatic experiences often lead to a “fight or flight” reaction which are normal methods for decreasing external danger. During this reaction, the child feels the overwhelming urge to get away from the traumatic experience or sometimes feels frozen and unable to escape. It can also be an experience that results in loss of internal control. Traumatic events can result in strong, overwhelming emotions that are difficult to contain. The person feels like they no longer have control over their reactions. Some events are more likely to be traumatic than others and people can have very different responses to the same event. When a child experiences trauma it can affect their daily lives and their ability to get along with others. Having reactions to trauma immediately following the event is a normal reaction. The time for concern is when unusual symptoms that interfere with a child’s daily life continue and don’t seem to improve with time.
Examples of “potentially traumatic events” for children?
- Physical abuse and maltreatment
- Sexual abuse
- Family, school, or community violence
- Death of a loved one, especially a parent or caregiver
- Domestic violence
- Community violence and criminal victimization
- Medical trauma
- Separation from a parent or caregiver
- Traumatic loss
- Natural Disasters
Children exposed to potentially traumatic events can develop chronic traumatic stress reactions, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression and other mental health issues that can sometimes be misdiagnosed for other disorders.
Child Traumatic Stress
Children who suffer from child traumatic stress have been exposed to one or more traumas over the course of their lives and develop reactions that affect their daily lives after the traumatic events have ended. Not all children exposed to a traumatic event will develop traumatic stress. Children are individuals and react to situations in their own unique ways.
Traumatic stress reactions includes some of the following: intense and ongoing emotional reactions, depressive symptoms, anxiety, behavioral changes, difficulties with attention, problems at school, nightmares, difficulty sleeping and eating, and aches and pains, among others. Children who suffer from traumatic stress often have these types of symptoms when reminded in some way of the traumatic event. Traumatic stress can result in a child/adolescent having the image of the traumatic event in their minds and interrupt their thoughts. Children can experience nightmares or have a strong physical reaction to traumatic reminders that may occur throughout daily lives. In addition, children who have experienced a traumatic event sometimes avoid any situation, person or place that reminds them of the event. In some cases children can try to “block” out the event and repress troubling memories. These symptoms can be quite concerning and result in difficulties at home, school and in the child’s relationship with others. See the section called, “Where to Start” for more information on recognizing symptoms of child traumatic stress.
There are also secondary stressors that can affect a child exposed to a traumatic event:
- changes in family living circumstances (resources)
- change in community resources
- change in school
- change in peers
- change in family constellation and function
- change in availability and utilization of social support
- caregivers needing to assume new responsibilities
- medical / surgical care, rehabilitation
- legal proceedings
Untreated Traumatic Stress can affect the development of a child and his/her ability to function at home and at school. There are severe consequences to untreated traumatic stress in children including potential changes to biological, neurological and social development. Child traumatic stress can be associated with an increase in risky behaviors such as HIV high-risk behavior, promiscuity, drug and alcohol abuse. Recent studies have linked early experiences of trauma with greater prevalence of health problems (heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, stroke, suicide). It can be argued that traumatic stress is the single greatest preventable cause of mental illness.
In some cases child traumatic stress symptoms may or may not meet the criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Children can show their PTSD symptoms differently than adults. These PTSD symptoms in children will vary by the child’s age and developmental level. Not all children who show signs of traumatic stress will be diagnosed with PTSD.
The good news is that traumatic stress in children is treatable and there are highly effective treatments available to help children. In Connecticut and across the country there are a range of available best practices that have been shown to significantly reduce the symptoms of traumatic stress and restore a child to health functioning. Please see the section called, “What Are Effective Treatments for Child Traumatic Stress.”