It’s easy for adults to mistakenly believe that just because a child was very young when a traumatic event happened, that they are unlikely to remember it as an adult. The truth is that childhood trauma can have an effect that lasts a lifetime, even when the person can’t remember the exact details of what happened to them. Childhood trauma can come in many different forms including events such as parental divorce, bullying at school, the loss of a close friend or loved one, a parent going to prison, an accident or physical injury, abuse, neglect, and more. And while kids do tend to be quite resilient, they are not unaffected by these events.
That’s not to say that every child who goes through a traumatic experience is going to be scarred for life. How children are supported and helped to deal with what has happened to them can make a massive difference to how well they are able to process it and the impact that it has on them later in life. Early intervention, either from a parent or a professional such as a social worker or therapist can help to prevent the child from experiencing the ongoing impact of childhood trauma as they grow into adulthood.
What is Childhood Trauma?
There are many different experiences that can be classed as childhood trauma. Most of the time, trauma is any event experienced by a child that threatens their life, health or bodily integrity. Bear in mind that some instances that you might not think are that traumatic as an adult can have a much bigger impact on children, who are often reliant on adults to do something about it. Physical or sexual abuse, for example, is often a clearly traumatic event for children, along with one-time events such as a bad car accident, medical trauma or being involved in a natural disaster. Childhood trauma can also be caused by ongoing stress such as being the victim of bullying at school, living in a dangerous neighborhood, or witnessing domestic violence at home.
Trauma in childhood does not have to be something that happens directly to the child. Watching a loved one suffer, or dealing with the death of a loved one at a very young age, can also have a traumatizing effect. One of the most common childhood traumas around the world today is the divorce or separation of parents – this can be upheaval in a child’s young life and be very traumatic for them if they are not adequately supported by the adults in their life.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Children:
It’s almost impossible to prevent a child from being exposed to traumatic events at some point during their lives. While most kids will experience some distress during and following a traumatic event, the good news is that with the right support from parents, teachers, social workers and other adults in their lives, the vast majority of children will return to a normal state of functioning quite quickly. Studies have found that some kids will be much less affected than others under the same circumstances, which is often the result of the type of support and relationships that they have at home, in school, and within their community.
On the other hand, some children many develop PTSD as a result of the trauma that they have endured. This can be a condition that lasts long into adulthood. Children who are experiencing PTSD may re-live the traumatic event in their minds over and over again. This could be flashbacks of the traumatic event, or emotional flashbacks, which involve re-living the feelings even when they are safe. One major sign of PTSD in children is avoidance of anything that reminds them of the trauma. For example, a child who has suffered an accident at school might refuse to go back, or a child who has been involved in a car accident might struggle to feel comfortable to get back in the car again. Children with PTSD might also re-enact the traumatic event when they are playing.
Hyper-vigilance is another symptom that may occur in children who have experienced a traumatic event. Some children may believe that they missed warning signs predicting whatever happened to them, and become hyper-vigilant to look for warning signs that something bad is going to happen again in order to try and prevent future traumas. Some of the other common signs of PTSD in children include depression, anger and aggression, feelings of isolation, fear, self-destructive behavior, difficulty trusting others, and poor self-esteem.
Behavioral and Emotional Issues After Trauma:
Not every child will develop PTSD after being through a traumatic event. However, even children who do not have PTSD can be impacted in terms of their emotional state and behavior. A child may be affected by trauma if they are experiencing anger issues, changes to their appetite, struggling to pay attention at school, loss of interest in normal activities, problems sleeping, feeling sad or depressed, irritability, somatic complaints such as stomach aches and headaches, refusing to go to school, or have more focus on new fears and increased thoughts about safety or death.
Health Consequences Over the Long Term:
Being exposed to a traumatic event as a child can have an impact on how the brain develops, which can have health consequences that stay with the individual for life. In 2015, one study found that the more adverse childhood experiences an individual has, the higher their risk of health problems will be later in life. The study found that people who have experienced childhood trauma tend to be at a higher risk for conditions such as depression, diabetes, asthma, coronary heart disease and stroke. Another study in the Psychiatric Times in 2016 found that suicide attempts are significantly higher in adults who experience trauma as a child. This is even higher for people who experienced sexual abuse, physical abuse, or domestic violence in the home.
Impact on Relationships and Attachment:
The relationship that a child has with their primary caregivers such as parents, grandparents, other relatives and in some cases, teachers, is crucial to their physical and emotional wellbeing. These vital relationships with adults that children have will teach them how to manage their emotions, interact with the world, and build trusting relationships with others.
When a child experiences a traumatic event, the reaction of their caregivers can make all the difference to how they respond to it in the short- and long-term. Trauma expert Gabor Mate says that when a child experiences trauma, is it not often the event itself that causes the long-lasting impact, but whether or not they are left alone with that trauma afterwards. If a child experiences trauma or a response to a traumatic event that teaches them that they are not able to rely on or trust their caregivers, they are more likely to believe that adults are dangerous and that the world is a scary place, which can have a significant impact on their social life throughout both childhood and adulthood.
In addition, children who struggle to maintain healthy attachments and relationships with their caregivers due to trauma are also more likely to struggle with their romantic relationships as adults as a result. In Australia, one study of over twenty-one thousand survivors of child abuse aged 60+ found that there was a higher rate of failed relationships and marriages in this group compared to others.
Supporting a Child After Trauma:
The good news is that despite the fact it’s often impossible to prevent all traumatic events from ever happening to a child, the parents and other key adults in the child’s life can play a very significant part when it comes to how the child responds to the trauma that they have experienced and the impact of the event during their adult life. Family support along with support from professionals such as teachers, social workers and therapists can be very influential in reducing the impact that a traumatic experience will have on a child.
Children who have experienced trauma might need outside professional help to guide them through processing what they have experienced and help them learn to trust adults again. In many cases, social workers and therapists are able to provide a secure attachment relationship to the child after experiencing a traumatic event and teach them that it is OK to open up and trust others, no matter what they have gone through. Parents can also help by answering their child’s questions honestly, validating their child’s feelings, and encouraging their child to open up. Simply providing reassurance to the child that they will do everything possible to keep them safe and following through on this promise can have a huge impact in repairing a child’s ability to attach and form relationships with others after a traumatic event.
Childhood trauma can come in many different forms, and it can have a significant impact on a child’s health and wellbeing both during childhood and in adulthood. If you or somebody that you know has experienced childhood trauma, it’s never too late to get help and support.