As much as parents try to shield their children from all kinds of frightening, dangerous or life-threatening events, the reality is that these things can still happen. Even when children aren’t physically imperiled, they may still struggle with mental and emotional trauma, which can sometimes stay with them for the duration of their lives. Children living through the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, may experience trauma from being pulled out of school, being separated from friends or family members, and worrying about contracting the virus.
Childhood trauma is more common than most people imagine.
What Is Childhood Trauma?
It is defined as a traumatic event as any scary, dangerous or violent event that poses a threat to the physical safety, well-being, or bodily integrity of a child. Sometimes, traumatic events may directly involve the child. Other times, the event involves the parent, guardian, or another caregiver. Threats to the physical safety of a loved one may be just as traumatic as direct threats to the child.
These experiences can trigger strong physical and emotional responses, which may persist long after the event passes. Some children develop child traumatic stress: a visceral response to childhood trauma that may affect their daily lives and emotional well-being for years or even decades after the triggering event.
Types of Childhood Trauma
A child may experience a number of potentially traumatic events, including the following:
- Abuse (sexual, physical, psychological)
- Life-threatening accidents or illnesses
- Violence in school or the community
- Domestic violence (witnessing or experiencing)
- National disasters
- Acts of terror
- Public health crises such as COVID-19
- Loss of a loved one, especially when sudden or violent in nature
- Refugee or war experiences
How Childhood Trauma Impacts Mental Health and Wellness
Each traumatic experience is unique, and thus childhood trauma impacts its victims in different ways. With that said, traumatic experiences can often have effects on a child that linger through adolescence and adulthood.
Developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Most children are exposed to a traumatic event at some point, and while these incidents usually result in at least momentary distress, some children return to normal functioning within a short time. In the most extreme cases, however, a traumatic event can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD is a mental health condition that can impact children in different ways. Some children find themselves replaying the traumatic incident in their minds, relieving the stress and agony. Others reenact the traumatic incident in their play. Still, others avoid any person or situation that might remind them of their trauma. Some children may also believe that they missed warning signs about the traumatic incident and therefore become hypervigilant to the point of obsession.
Children with PTSD may experience a range of symptoms, including the following:
- Anger and increased aggression
- Mistrust of others
- Low self-image
- Self-harming behaviors
- Other Effects of Childhood Trauma
Even children who don’t exhibit the signs of PTSD can still struggle with various behavioral issues following a traumatic event. Some examples are:
- Difficulty focusing or paying attention
- Changes in eating habits
- New fears or phobias
- Increased obsession with safety
- Increased focus on death and dying
- Insomnia and fitful sleeping
- Loss of interest in usual hobbies and activities
When left untreated, childhood trauma can have effects that last into adulthood. Traumatic experiences can burrow down deep into the body, contributing to chronic illness. Data from a 2019 survey showed a strong correlation between unresolved trauma and the risk of cancer.
Childhood trauma that involves sexual abuse can lead to long-term sexual dysfunction, including a higher likelihood of sexually risky behaviors.
Trauma can also lead to long-term cognitive difficulties and academic challenges. Children who have gone through trauma may show deficits in language development and abstract reasoning skills.
Strategies for Addressing Childhood Trauma
While the effects of childhood trauma can be long-lasting, multiple strategies are available to those who’ve experienced trauma, allowing them to address their trauma, recover from it and live a healthy life. Mental health professionals can work with their patients to identify the best recovery strategies.
One way to deal with childhood trauma is to speak with a counselor or therapist. Those who’ve gone through trauma often internalize blame and guilt, potentially leading to low self-esteem. A counselor can help patients allocate blame more judiciously, develop the skill sets required for self-compassion, and learn other skills to grapple with weighty or complicated emotions.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Following a traumatic episode, children sometimes develop negative behavioral or emotional responses as a way to cope with their trauma. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based approach to unlearning these negative responses, training the brain to deal with trauma, stress, and grief in a healthier, more productive way.
Mindfulness meditation may not be the best solution for everyone, but in some cases, it can provide an opportunity to increase present-moment awareness, as opposed to constantly dwelling on the past. Additionally, mindfulness meditation may increase self-compassion and also improve the individual’s ability to self-regulate (that is, the ability to keep one’s emotions in check).
Moving Forward from Trauma
Traumatic incidents are all too common and can have long-lasting effects on the children who experience them. The right intervention from a mental health professional, however, makes it possible not only to move forward from trauma but also to live a healthy, fulfilling life.