What is Trauma?

Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that can have lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional well-being.

There are three main types of trauma are acute, chronic, or complex.

  • Acute trauma results from a single incident.
  • Chronic trauma is repeated and prolonged such as domestic violence or abuse.
  • Complex trauma is exposure to varied and multiple traumatic events, often of an invasive, interpersonal nature.

Early childhood trauma generally refers to the traumatic experiences that occur to children ages 0-6. Children can experience various types of trauma including:

  • Natural disasters
  • Sexual Abuse
  • Physical Abuse
  • Domestic Violence
  • Medical Injury, illness, or procedures
  • Community violence
  • Neglect, deprivation
  • Traumatic grief
  • Victim of crime
  • Kidnapping
  • Accidents
  • School violence
  • Loss

Trauma and Brain Development

Research has shown that children are particularly vulnerable to trauma because of their rapidly developing brain. During traumatic experiences, a child’s brain is in heightened state of stress and fear-related hormones are activated. Although, stress is a normal part of life, when a child is exposed to chronic trauma, like abuse or neglect, the child’s brain remains in this heightened pattern. Remaining in this heightened state can change the emotional, behavioral and cognitive functioning of the child in order to maintain and promote survival. Over time, these traumatic experiences can have a significant impact on a child’s future behavior, emotional development, mental and physical health.

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University discusses the impact of toxic stress on the developing brain. Click here to learn about toxic stress

Fact Sheets on Trauma and Brain Development:

Understanding the Effects of Maltreatment on Brain Development, Child Welfare Information Gateway. November 2009.

Burgess Chamberlain, Linda. The Amazing Brain: Trauma and the Potential for Healing”, 2008.

Perry, B.D. Traumatized children: How childhood trauma influences brain development. In: The Journal of the California Alliance for the Mentally Ill 11:1, 48-51, 2000

InBrief: The Impact of Early Adversity on Children's Development, outlines basic concepts from the research on the biology of stress which show that major adversity can weaken developing brain architecture and permanently set the body's stress response system on high alert.

Working Paper #3, Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain, New research suggests that exceptionally stressful experiences early in life may have long-term consequences for a child's learning, behavior, and both physical and mental health. Some types of “positive stress” in a child's life—overcoming the challenges and frustrations of learning a new, difficult task, for instance—can be beneficial.

Adverse Childhood Experiences Study

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE) underscores the impact of trauma on physical and mental health over time.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study is one of the largest investigations ever conducted to assess associations between childhood maltreatment and later-life health and well-being. The study is collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente's Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego. More than 17,000 Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) members who underwent a comprehensive physical examination chose to provide detailed information about their childhood experience of abuse, neglect, and family dysfunction.

The study uses the ACE score, which is a total count of the number of adverse childhood experiences reported by respondents to assess the total amount of stress during childhood. The greater the number of ACEs the greater the risk for the following problems later in life including alcoholism, depression, multiple sexual partners, suicide attempts, smoking and liver disease among other negative health related issues.

For more information on the ACE Study, visit The Centers for Disease Control.

Information on Assessing and Treating Children who have Experienced Trauma

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network notes that, “children suffering from traumatic stress symptoms generally have difficultly regulating their behaviors and emotions. They may be clingy and fearful of new situations, easily frightened, difficult to console, and/or aggressive or impulsive. They many have difficulty sleeping, lose recently acquired developmental skills, and show regression in functioning and behavior.”

Find more information on possible reactions of children 0-6 exposed to traumatic stress.

It is essential that children who have suffered trauma be identified and treated. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has resources for mental health professionals, early childhood providers, and primary care physicians to help identify, assess, and treat children who have suffer traumatic stress.