Experiencing trauma at a young age can have profound impacts on a child’s development and long-term wellbeing. Trauma comes in many forms, from experiencing or witnessing violence, abuse, or neglect, to living through natural disasters, accidents, or sudden loss of a loved one. Understanding what kinds of events are likely to be traumatic for children is an important step in being able to support their healing process.
Definition of Trauma
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines individual trauma as “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”
For children specifically, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) expands this definition to include events that overwhelm a child’s capacity to cope and provoke intense emotions and physical reactions. Since children are still developing cognitively and emotionally, their sense of safety and security is more fragile, so events that may not be objectively traumatic can still feel threatening or terrifying to a child.
Common Causes of Trauma in Childhood
Some of the most common sources of trauma for children include:
- Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
- Physical or emotional neglect
- Witnessing violence in the home or community
- Bullying or peer victimization
- Serious accidental injury
- Sudden or violent loss of a loved one
- Living through a dangerous natural disaster
- Undergoing a painful medical procedure
- Experiencing a bad accident
- Having a life-threatening health issue
Younger children are more vulnerable to experiencing trauma from events that overwhelm their sense of security and attachment to caregivers. Older children and teens are better able to regulate their emotions and may be more resilient to isolated traumatic events, but can still experience severe trauma from chronic or repeated threats like ongoing abuse or exposure to community violence.
Impact of Trauma
Going through a traumatic event can lead to a range of psychological, emotional, and even physical repercussions for children. Common effects include:
- Flashbacks or recurrent, intrusive memories of the event
- Nightmares and difficulty sleeping
- Irritability, anger outbursts, or aggressive behavior
- Inability to concentrate or focus
- Being easily startled or on guard for danger
- Withdrawing from others
- Engaging in harmful behaviors like substance abuse
- Somatic complaints like stomachaches and headaches
- Changes in self-esteem and sense of the world as safe
Without treatment and support, the effects of trauma can disrupt children’s daily functioning and development. Ongoing trauma from sources like child abuse puts children at risk for serious long-term consequences like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), poorer physical health, difficulties with interpersonal relationships, lower academic achievement, and increased risk of suicide.
Age Differences in Response to Trauma
How children at different developmental ages tend to respond to traumatic events:
Early childhood (ages 0-6)
- Regression like loss of language or toileting skills
- General fearfulness
- Separation anxiety, clinging to caregivers
- Disturbed sleep, nightmares
- Loss of recently acquired developmental skills
- Reenacting traumatic events through play
- Increased temper tantrums
Middle childhood (ages 7-12)
- Withdrawing from friends and activities
- Decline in school performance
- Somatic complaints
- Anxiety, irritability, anger
- Nightmares and sleep troubles
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling guilt or shame over trauma
Adolescence (ages 13-18)
- Flashbacks of trauma
- Self-destructive or reckless behaviors
- Withdrawal, loss of interest in activities
- Somatic complaints
- Hostility towards others
- Feelings of detachment
- Depression or suicidal thoughts
When to Seek Help
It’s normal for children to exhibit some changes in their behavior, mood, or functioning after a distressing event. Sometimes with support from caring adults, they can recover and return to their usual emotional state. However, it’s important to seek professional help if the following warning signs persist for more than 2-4 weeks:
- Decline in school performance
- Loss of interest in activities
- Withdrawal from friends and family
- Trouble sleeping and nightmares
- Bedwetting or regression in skills
- Overwhelming sadness and crying
- Overblown startle response
- Aggressive behavior and irritability
- Physical complaints without illness
Getting appropriate trauma-focused counseling or therapy can help children process their experience, make sense of their feelings, and develop coping strategies so they can recover. With compassionate support, even very young children can build resilience and heal after trauma.
As caring adults, there are some key things we can do to help children feel safer and begin to heal after trauma:
- Listen openly when they want to talk about the experience
- Reassure them that they are now safe
- Maintain regular schedules and routines
- Allow them to regress a bit if needed
- Limit exposure to further frightening situations
- Get outside help from counselors or therapists
- Take good care of yourself too
While traumatic events can rupture a child’s sense of safety, with compassion, consistency, professional help, and time, most children can overcome their ordeal. Providing developmentally appropriate support and creating an environment where they feel secure, engaged, and cared for is key to enabling their healing process.
Summary of Key Points
- Trauma in childhood involves an event that overwhelms a child’s ability to cope and makes them feel terrified and helpless.
- Common causes include abuse, neglect, witnessing violence, accidents, injuries, loss of a loved one, natural disasters, and painful medical procedures.
- Effects of trauma can include emotional and behavioral changes like aggression, withdrawal, trouble concentrating, somatic complaints, and decline in functioning.
- Younger children tend to show more regression and attachment behaviors after trauma, while teens may engage in reckless behaviors, withdrawal, or suicidal thoughts.
- Seek help if issues persist more than 2-4 weeks. With care and counseling, most children can recover from trauma and build resilience.