The word trauma is used to describe negative events that are emotionally painful and that overwhelm a person’s ability to cope. Interpersonal or intentional trauma, such as childhood abuse or neglect, tends to have the most severe adverse psychological effects on children. Trauma can also occur when there is sexual abuse or psychological abuse.
Children can suffer trauma at any age as they are maturing and developing. However, early childhood trauma generally refers to the traumatic experiences that occur from birth up to age six. Because infants’ and young children’s reactions may be different from older children’s, and since they may not be able to verbalize their reactions to threatening or dangerous events, many people assume that young age protects children from the impact of traumatic experiences. On the contrary, a growing body of research has established that young children, even infants, may be affected by events that threaten their safety or the safety of their parents and caregivers.
When children are exposed to multiple traumatic events in their lifetime, they are defined as having suffered complex trauma. Complex trauma can have devastating effects on a child’s physiology, emotional development and impulse control, self-image and self-esteem, interpersonal relationships, and the ability to think, learn, and concentrate. Studies have shown that complex trauma can lead to other issues, including substance abuse and addiction, chronic physical conditions, and mental illness.
If a child does not form healthy attachments with caregivers, he or she will be more likely to experience stress, which may cause the child to have trouble controlling and effectively expressing his or her emotions. The child may also be prone to violent or inappropriate reactions. Normal biological functions can be impaired, because when a child grows up afraid or under persistent or high levels of stress, the child’s immune and stress response systems may develop abnormally. Children who have experienced complex trauma often have difficulty with the expression and management of their emotions.
Dissociation—the mental separation from traumatic events—may also be seen in children. This can affect a child’s ability to be fully present in activities of daily life and can significantly fracture a child’s sense of time and continuity, which can have adverse affects on learning and classroom behavior, as well as his social interactions with peers. Trauma may cause a child to struggle with self-regulation—causing a lack in impulse control or the ability to adequately think through consequences before acting. Children who suffered trauma may have problems thinking clearly, reasoning, and solving problems—causing them to be unable to plan ahead, anticipate the future, and act accordingly. Childhood trauma can have long-term consequences on a person. A child cannot be blamed for the trauma they suffered or the harm that it has caused their development.
“Developmental Trauma Disorder: Toward a Rational Diagnosis for Children with Complex Trauma Histories” by Bessel A. van der Kolk
Abstract: Childhood trauma, including abuse and neglect, is probably the nation’s single most important public health challenge, a challenge that has the potential to be largely resolved by appropriate prevention and intervention. Each year over 3,000,000 children are reported to the authorities for abuse and/or neglect in the United States of which about one million are substantiated. Many thousands more undergo traumatic medical and surgical procedures, and are victims of accidents and of community violence. However, most trauma begins at home: the vast majority of people (about 80 %) responsible for child maltreatment are children’s own parents. Read the full article.
“Trauma Changes Everything: Examining the Relationship Between Adverse Childhood Experiences and Serious, Violent and Chronic Juvenile Offenders” by Bryanna Hahn Foxa, Nicholas Pereza, Elizabeth Cassa, Michael T. Bagliviob, and Nathan Epps, Child Abuse & Neglect (2015)
Abstract: Among juvenile offenders, those who commit the greatest number and the most violent offenses are referred to as serious, violent, and chronic (SVC) offenders. However, current practices typically identify SVC offenders only after they have committed their prolific and costly offenses. While several studies have examined risk factors of SVCs, no screening tool has been developed to identify children at risk of SVC offending. This study aims to examine how effective the adverse childhood experiences index, a childhood trauma-based screening tool developed in the medical field, is at identifying children at higher risk of SVC offending. Data on the history of childhood trauma, abuse, neglect, criminal behavior, and other criminological risk factors for offending among 22,575 delinquent youth referred to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice are analyzed, with results suggesting that each additional adverse experience a child experiences increases the risk of becoming a serious, violent, and chronic juvenile offender by 35, when controlling for other risk factors for criminal behavior. These findings suggest that the ACE score could be used by practitioners as a first-line screening tool to identify children at risk of SVC offending before significant downstream wreckage occurs. Purchase access to the full article.
“How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime” by Nadine Burke Harris, TEDMED (2014)
Abstract: In this TED Talk, pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris explains that the repeated stress of abuse, neglect, and parents struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues has real, tangible effects on the development of the brain. This unfolds across a lifetime, to the point where those who’ve experienced high levels of trauma are at triple the risk for heart disease and lung cancer. An impassioned plea for pediatric medicine to confront the prevention and treatment of trauma, head-on. Watch the full TED Talk or read the transcript.