Understanding Trauma’s Impact on Children

Make no mistake, exposure to trauma is a serious problem among American children. Studies have shown that between 39 and 85 percent of children and adolescents have witnessed community violence, and have been victims of such violence at a rate of 66 percent – with rates varying based on community. Youth exposure to sexual abuse is estimated to be between 25 and 43 percent. In 2006, 7.9 million U.S. children had to receive emergency care for disasters, near-fatal accidents, and in the case of 400,000 children, direct violence.

The scars of trauma can last a lifetime, but few recognize the symptoms or know how to support kids struggling to recover from past events. If you are a person in authority, such as a family member, coach or teacher, you can make a difference by being present, showing strength, and keeping your eyes open.

How is a traumatic experience defined in this situation? Circumstances may vary, but trauma involves intense feelings of helplessness, terror and lack of control, often caused by threats to physical or mental health. Violence, or at least the threat of violence, is a very common factor. Natural disasters and catastrophes can also cause trauma, even if there is no direct human cause. From unexpected deaths and near-fatal accidents to community violence and family abuse, trauma can take many forms.

To make it simpler, psychologists divide trauma into two different categories, acute and complex (or type I and type II). Acute trauma is related to a single event, such as an act of terrorism or rape. Complex trauma is related to multiple events over an extended period of time, such as living with an abusive family member or being subjected to neglect for years. Recovery from complex trauma is drastically different than acute trauma, but both can cause serious developmental problems.


Child vs. Adult

Children and adults face many similar struggles when dealing with trauma. Both often experience dissociation, for example, and seek to remove themselves through denial and emotional numbness. Both may become obsessive as a result of the trauma or even develop PTSD. Other reactions to trauma include terrifyingly high stress levels and susceptibility to reliving incidents over and over.

However, just because children go through the same emotional turmoil that adults do does not mean they are equipped to deal with trauma in the same way. This is why childhood symptoms differ so much from adult symptoms.

A child is less likely to understand the causes of traumatic experience, and more likely to regress, potentially losing learned skills such as the ability (or desire) to speak. Rather than turn to close relationships the way adults can, children tend to develop more physical symptoms as a result of trauma, such as bedwetting, thumbsucking or a greater exhibition of irrational fears. Digestive problems and sleep disorders are also common signs.

As children age, responses to trauma become more complex. Signs may shift to more obvious disobedience, withdrawal, or irritability in children between ages five and eleven. Physical symptoms may include frequent headaches, and visual or auditory problems. By this age, performance in school can be an invaluable indicator, too.


Dangers and Development

When left unnoticed or untreated, reactions to trauma can become entrenched in a child’s life and lead to increasingly dangerous behaviors, even if the experience is buried in the past. Guilt can turn into emotional instability and rage. Fear can turn into crippling depression and social disorders. Anxiety often become manifest in learning disabilities and poor decision making.

By the time children who have experienced trauma become preteens and teens, they can become trapped in cycles of rage and disassociation. Depression, ADHD, and OCD can become serious factors, depending on individual responses. When left unnoticed, antisocial attitudes tend to get worse. This especially happens when disorders are dismissed as “typical” adolescent behavior. Teens may resort to thrillseeking and self-endangering sexual activity as they struggle to understand their own emotions, identity, and all-too private trauma.


Support and Treatment

Family support and a sense of safety are irreplaceable when it comes to recovering from traumatic experiences. As children grow and learn to cope, patience and listening also become key. Professional psychologists and therapists can struggle to provide the kind of support that guardians, family, teachers, and coaches might naturally offer.

Beyond general support and encouragement, the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) has an excellent list of six coping styles which may help children on their way through recovery. Styles include Imagination for more creative children, Physiological for the more active who need periods of diversion, and Belief for those find support in a system of faith. If necessary, medication may also be used in some stages of treatment.

There is no silver bullet or “benchmark” way to treat childhood trauma. Every child is special, unique – you cannot heal with a checklist. Children must grow, learn, and reconcile traumatic events so they can heal, typically through deeply personal decisions made over many years. The process is often challenging, but having supportive and understanding adults at hand can save lives.


More Information on the Impact of Childhood Trauma

Scholastic: Principles of Working with Traumatized Children: This resource provides a clear, detailed list of how teachers and coaches can deal with traumatized youth, especially if they are unsure what they can do to help out.

Helpguide: Healing Emotional and Psychological Trauma: This guide is for general trauma sufferers, but is just as meaningful for children as for adults. Links throughout the article’s explanation lead to further information on specific types of abuse, reaction, and healing.

NCTSN: Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators: This is a series of articles by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, suitable not only for teachers but for any adult that wants to provide aid to a troubled child. Many articles are also available in Spanish.