How Psychological Trauma Shows up in Children

Trauma is a pervasive problem for adults and children; however, studies show how psychological trauma manifests in a young child is markedly different compared to an adult.

Traumatic experiences

The saying, “who you are at seven, you will be at seventy,” may have a grain of truth. Your child’s early experiences (from birth to age eight) are crucial.

Trauma experts say that a child’s formative years are substantial and create a foundation for the rest of your child’s life – experiences, good and bad, can have a particular influence during this time.

Resilience

Because children tend to express themselves differently from adults, there is a chronic misconception among some communities that children are resilient. Although this might appear valid in some ways, a more helpful description is that psychological trauma looks different in young children than in adults.

Unresolved trauma can cause as many problems in children as it does in adults – the long-lasting effects can produce many adverse outcomes that continue into adulthood.

Childhood trauma

teddy-bear-with-a-band-aid

The research literature shows a strong correlation between childhood trauma and physical and mental health disorders among children, teenagers, and adults.

Therefore, children must get the help and support they need early on to prevent adverse health outcomes in the future. 

Unpacking emotional trauma and identifying the source of past negative experiences can help your child to reprocess traumatic events from the past, allowing them to accept all that happened and learn healthy coping mechanisms.

Psychological trauma in children

There are various definitions of trauma, and everyone experiences (and perceives) traumatic events differently.

Broadly, “trauma” is any disturbing event or experience perceived as harmful or life-threatening or a situation that causes profound physical, emotional or psychological harm to an individual.

Trauma types

Trauma can show up in numerous ways depending on the event or experience. 

For example, trauma can be induced by a single -event (such as a physical assault, severe injury or illness). On the other hand, trauma can be chronic and occur over long periods, which is often the case with intimate partner violence, bullying and childhood abuse or neglect.

Chronic or recurring trauma is often called complex trauma. These traumatic experiences occur over long periods and can cause severe psychological and physical harm.

Moreover, exposure to trauma (or witnessing traumatic events) such as intimate partner violence or other forms of violence are incredibly trauma-inducing experiences for children.

What makes an experience traumatic?

Sad teenage boy sitting alone at school, bullying among children concept

Understanding what makes an experience traumatic might be a helpful way for parents (and people in general) to understand the critical signs of trauma in children.

Inherently, we all experience traumatic events differently, and there is no way to tell how one child will deal with trauma compared to another. 

However, researchers have noted specific factors that may help people determine some of the critical aspects of trauma and how trauma symptoms may manifest in children.

Such factors include:

  • The child’s developmental stage – A toddler with limited vocabulary and minimal communication skills is unlikely to express trauma in an easy-to-identify- way.
  • The child’s parents or caregivers – When determining what factors are vital to how a child processes trauma, it is pertinent to consider how supportive the child’s parents or caregivers were during this phase. Were the parents’ reactions aggressive or overbearing? Did the parents dismiss or ignore the child’s trauma? 
  • The child’s age – How toddlers experience (and express) trauma will be significantly different to how a teenager deals with traumatic experiences

Essentially, a child’s age and developmental stage are significant factors in how the child responds to and processes traumatic events.

Unresolved trauma in children

If a child’s trauma remains unaddressed or unresolved, it can cause various mental health complications, such as:

Thus, understanding the signs of trauma in children is vital to prevent adverse outcomes in the future.

Symptoms of trauma in children

child needs help with school

Children may exhibit different signs and symptoms of trauma depending on many factors such as their age and developmental stage – however, some of the common signs of childhood trauma include:

  • Frequent tearfulness or crying
  • Anxiety or fear, especially when being separated from a parent or caregiver 
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Being easily startled, frightened or scared
  • Demonstrating regressive behaviours (i.e., returning to a previous developmental stage)
  • Changes in eating habits and weight gain or loss 
  • Sadness and melancholy
  • Reenacting traumatic experiences through play (this frequently occurs in younger children such as toddlers)
  • Risky or reckless behaviours 
  • Angry outbursts
  • Bedwetting
  • Self-harm (such as cutting oneself)
  • Dissociative behaviours – the child may shut down, appear withdrawn or look as if they are in a daydream

Risk factors and causes 

As mentioned, trauma is a pervasive problem for adults and children. Childhood trauma is a prevalent issue and can occur at any age.

The research literature states that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as abuse or neglect, parental substance abuse, death of a parent or caregiver, or exposure to mental illness in the family are potentially traumatic experiences for children.

There is no hard and fast rule, but broadly, the more ACEs a person experiences in childhood, the more likely they are to encounter specific challenges in later life, such as:

  • Educational issues
  • Substance use disorders
  • Physical and mental health problems (including behavioural issues)
  • Relationship issues
  • Socioeconomic challenges 

Causes

teenage girl with the word no written in her hand

Various events can trigger trauma responses in children, such as:

  • Natural disasters
  • Exposure to violence, such as at home, in the community or at school
  • Neglect of emotional or physical needs
  • Grief due to the loss of a parent or close relative
  • Physical, sexual or emotional abuse
  • Exposure to or witnessing domestic violence (intimate partner violence)
  • Chronic illness (includes having a severe disease or witnessing a loved one’s long-term illness)
  • Being the victim of racism or bullying (which is a form of prolonged trauma)
  • Threats of terrorism or war

Prolonged trauma

Complex trauma occurs when traumatic events happen over a long period or when a child is exposed to multiple traumatic experiences.

Complex trauma may occur due to parental abandonment, abuse, or community violence. It can affect a child’s development, attachment to caregivers, and overall sense of identity.

Various factors can influence how a child conceptualises their early experiences. However, some people are at higher risk of experiencing childhood trauma than others. Such factors include:

  • Trauma history
  • Conditions of poverty 
  • Family history and environment 

How to support children with trauma

mother-and-child-speaking-to-a-teacher

In the aftermath of a traumatic experience, the aim is to restore physical and psychological safety for traumatised children.

In addition to the above, being consistent and present to a child’s needs (physical and emotional) are some of the keys to reestablishing a safe and reassuring environment that lays the foundation for healing.

If you are a parent looking for ways to support your child through a traumatic experience, there are various options you can explore, such as:

  • Liaising with your child’s school – seeking help and guidance from school support services can be a helpful way to support your child through trauma – challenging experiences can affect children in different ways, which can show up within a school setting. Hence, advocating for your child’s schooling needs can ensure that educational and emotional needs are met.  
  • Taking care of yourself – you may have traumatic experiences of your own to process, and taking care of yourself is an integral aspect of supporting children with trauma. Enlisting in therapy or community support are just some ways to take care of yourself.
  • Having a robust support network – seeking support and guidance from family and friends is a critical way to support children with trauma; this may include coming up with a treatment plan or additional support methods. 

Life after trauma 

Much research shows that supporting traumatised children through early treatment intervention can help minimise the impact of adverse outcomes in adulthood.

Guidance and support from medical and broader communities are vital to ensure that children with trauma histories grow up healthy, functional and cooperative members of society. What takes place in the aftermath of trauma is just as influential as the traumatic experiences. 

For parents and children with trauma, community support is an imperative aspect of the recovery process; it venerates healing and acceptance, allowing children to move forward and become the empowered adults they were born to be.

Contact Camino Recovery

child talking to a therapist

We specialise in treating various mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and trauma at Camino Recovery. 

Our friendly, helpful team is always on hand to lend a listening ear – contact a team member today for help and support.

Resources

Below are some valuable resources that may help you to support your child through a traumatic experience:

References

  1. How Do You Know If a Child Is Traumatised? PsychCentral, Mellisa Gooden, LMFT, LMHC, CCTP, CCATP for DRK Beauty Healing – December 5, 2021
  2. Complex Trauma Resources – For People Who Don’t Fit in Neat Little Boxes & Everyone Who Cares About Them
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