When we think about childhood trauma, sometimes we only consider factors like abuse or growing up in a home with drug or alcohol use. These are certainly sources of trauma, but other things can traumatize children too.
For example, if you’re in a car accident, it can create trauma. If you divorce your spouse or you move, these can also be traumatic situations for kids.
While children are generally resilient, if they go through something significant in their lives that could potentially impact them mentally, it’s essential to recognize that and realize how it can affect them.
The following are some things to understand about childhood trauma.
What is Childhood Trauma?
We already touched on this above a bit with some examples, but childhood trauma is anything that threatens your child’s life or what’s described as their bodily integrity or makes them fearful or anxious.
Along with car accidents, medical trauma, natural disasters, or any type of physical abuse can traumatize a child.
Ongoing stress, such as being the victim of bullying or living in a dangerous neighborhood, can create trauma.
Trauma doesn’t even have to directly affect a child physically for it to impact them mentally. For example, if a loved one is suffering and a child witnesses it, that’s often traumatic, as is exposure to violence.
The majority of children will be exposed to something traumatic at some point in their life or another. Most kids do return to normal functionality after a short period of time. Some kids are significantly less affected by circumstances than others.
Some children will, on the other hand, develop PTSD.
PTSD in Kids
Post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD is more common in girls than boys. Children who develop PTSD may continue to relive the traumatic event in their minds. Children with PTSD may avoid anything reminding them of trauma, or they might re-enact trauma when they play.
A child with PTSD may become hyper-vigilant, always looking for signs that something bad will happen once again. Likewise, a child with PTSD may have co-occurring issues such as anger, aggression, and anxiety.
PTSD in children can lead to isolation, fear, problems trusting, poor self-esteem, and self-destructiveness.
Even if a child doesn’t develop diagnosable PTSD, they may still have behavioral and emotional problems after trauma exposure.
Anger issues, changes in appetite, attention problems, and irritability are red flags. Other things to watch for include the development of new fears, loss of interest in everyday activities, problems sleeping, and physical complaints like headaches and stomachaches.
Long-Term Effects of Trauma
Unfortunately, traumatic event exposure can impact the developing brain of a child. That can lead to lifelong effects. The more difficult experiences a person has in childhood, the greater the risk of health problems later in life, and the higher their risk of overall wellness problems.
Research shows that childhood exposure to trauma can lead to a high risk of chronic health problems like cancer and heart disease. It can also lead to potentially harmful behaviors such as substance abuse.
Children exposed to trauma, particularly if it’s something that relates to their caregiver or a person they trust, can then lead them to have difficulties forming attachments later in life. They may struggle in creating relationships.
Even in the relative short term, if a child experiences trauma, school can be challenging for them. For example, if a child has trust problems, they might not ask for help in school when they need it.
A child who’s traumatized may see everything in the worst possible light. They might see themselves as being a bad kid, or they can be so fearful of making a mistake that they don’t try anything at all.
Helping Your Child Cope After a Traumatic Event
Many times when children are exposed to trauma, as a parent it’s easy to feel out of control. There are situations that you can do nothing about, such as a natural disaster, a family illness, or involvement in car accidents, for example.
While you might not have been able to help your child avoid the event altogether, there are things you can do to help them cope.
Ways to Help Kids Cope
Establishing a Sense of Security
After any event with even the potential to be traumatic, work to make your child feel safe. This might include hugs and other types of physical touch. In the aftermath of anything that could be traumatic, your main goal is to help your child feel a sense of security.
Remain calm, even if you’re also feeling upset or traumatized. Don’t talk about your own sense of anxiety around your kids because this will amplify what they’re feeling, especially if they’re looking to you for reassurance.
Stick to Your Routine
Try to maintain your daily routines as much as you can. For example, try to keep consistent times for meals and bed, even if you’re relocated temporarily. Keep the same family rules, too, such as behavioral rules.
Help your kids have fun to distract them and also create feelings of normalcy. You can do this by getting them involved in a sport, after-school clubs, or just making time for them with projects, movies, or hobbies.
Give them Opportunities to Open Up
Leave opportunities for your child to talk to you about what they might be feeling. This can mean a long car ride, gardening together, shopping, or baking. Find ways to facilitate conversation. Every child will have their own ways of coping, so leave them space to explore what works for them.
Reduce Exposure to News
Limit or avoid exposure to the news, particularly if it could relate to the traumatic event your child experienced in any way.
Be an active listener. Don’t try to offer advice or lecture. Just be there to hear what your child has to say. Know that it’s okay not to have an answer for everything.
Help Them to Relax
Work on relaxation and breathing exercises. These are coping skills that, once they’re learned can be used throughout your child’s life and experiences.
Acknowledge Their Feelings
Finally, acknowledge what your child is feeling. As parents, sometimes in an effort to make things better, we may want to minimize what happened or what our child is feeling, such as by telling them not to worry.
Instead, just let your child know that you see them and you hear them. That’s enough in these circumstances.
You’re Not Alone
If you feel like you or someone you know is in crisis, these hotlines are here to help.
Disaster Distress Helpline: 800-985-5990
Gift from Within:207-236-8858
National Center for Victims of Crime: 800-FYI-CALL (800-394-2255)
National Child Abuse Hotline: 800-422-4453
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-SAFE (800-799-7233) and 800-787-3224 (TDD)
National Runaway Switchboard: 800-786-2929
National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-4673
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255); 888-628-9454 (Spanish); 800-799-4889 (TTY)
National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline: 866-331-9474, 866-331-8453 (TTY)
The Trevor Project: 866-488-7386
Childhood trauma is complicated. By reading this post you’ve already made a huge step in being proactive about what your child is going through and how they may cope. Being there for your kid is the utmost priority in life. Follow the above suggestions and you’ll be well on your way to managing any trauma life throws your way.