Traumatic experiences are common in childhood and adolescence and can have significant psychological effects on the child’s emotional well-being and overall development. Outcomes can be affected positively or negatively depending on responses and interventions. Humans develop slowly over time, taking years to become independent and autonomous adults. But what happens when an infant or child experiences intense loss, suffering, abuse, or neglect? What if the parents are separated from the child? How do little ones survive and thrive in the absence of solid loving care? What are the impacts of trauma on child development? The answer is … many children may survive but few really thrive after severe trauma, abuse, or neglect … without child therapy, intervention, and therapeutic care.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), child trauma occurs more than you think. More than two-thirds of children reported at least 1 traumatic event by age 16. Potentially traumatic events include:
• Psychological, physical, or sexual abuse
• Community or school violence
• Witnessing or experiencing domestic violence
• National disasters or terrorism
• Commercial sexual exploitation
• Sudden or violent loss of a loved one
• Refugee or war experiences
• Military family-related stressors (e.g., deployment, parental loss or injury)
• Physical or sexual assault
• Serious accidents or life-threatening illness
The national average of child abuse and neglect victims in 2015 was 683,000, or 9.2 victims per 1,000 children. Each year, the number of youth requiring hospital treatment for physical assault-related injuries would fill every seat in 9 stadiums.
1 in 4 high school students was in at least 1 physical fight.
1 in 5 high school students was bullied at school; 1 in 6 experienced cyberbullying.
19% of injured and 12% of physically ill youth have post-traumatic stress disorder.
More than half of U.S. families have been affected by some type of disaster (54%).
It’s important to recognize the signs of traumatic stress and its short- and long-term impact. The signs of traumatic stress may be different in each child. Young children may react differently than older children.
• Fear being separated from their parent/caregiver
• Cry or scream a lot
• Eat poorly or lose weight
• Have nightmares
Elementary School Children
• Become anxious or fearful
• Feel guilt or shame
• Have a hard time concentrating
• Have difficulty sleeping
• Feel depressed or alone
• Develop eating disorders or self-harming behaviors
• Begin abusing alcohol or drugs
• Become involved in risky sexual behavior
Impact of Trauma
The impact of child traumatic stress can last well beyond childhood. In fact, research has shown that childhood trauma survivors may experience:
• Learning problems, including lower grades and more suspensions and expulsions
• Increased use of health and mental health services
• Increase involvement with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems
• Long-term health problems (e.g., diabetes and heart disease)
Trauma is a risk factor for nearly all behavioral health and substance use disorders. There is hope. Children can and do recover from traumatic events, and you can play an important role in their recovery. A critical part of children’s recovery is having a supportive caregiving system, access to effective treatments, and service systems that are trauma-informed. Not all children experience child traumatic stress after experiencing a traumatic event. With support, many children are able to recover and thrive. As a caring adult and/or family member, you play an important role.
• Assure the child that he or she is safe.
• Explain that he or she is not responsible. Children often blame themselves for events that are completely out of their control.
• Be patient. Some children will recover quickly while others recover more slowly. Reassure them that they do not need to feel guilty or bad about any feelings or thoughts.
• Seek the help of a trained professional. When needed, a mental health professional trained in evidence-based trauma treatment can help children and families cope and move toward recovery. Ask your pediatrician, family physician, school counselor, or clergy member for a referral.