What is Trauma?

As parents or caregivers we want to protect our children from situations and experiences that can hurt them. However, it is not always possible, and a child may experience trauma as a result. Individual trauma can result from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual and is physically or emotionally harmful or threatening. Traumatic experiences or events can have a lasting, negative impact on the individual’s ability to function, as well as on their physical, social, and emotional well-being.

Early childhood trauma generally refers to the traumatic experiences that occur to children between the ages of 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

Children are at particular risk of developing future behavioral, emotional, mental and physical health issues as a result of trauma because of their rapidly developing brain. Young children and even infants can be impacted by experiences or events that threaten their safety.

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.

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University discusses the impact of toxic stress on the developing brain.

What are the signs that a child may be experiencing traumatic stress?

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

Helping Your Child Recover from Trauma

Children can recover from trauma. As parents and caregivers, you have an important role in helping your child through this recovery process. Your child will look to you to help them and provide reassurance, comfort, guidance, and support. Spending time together, talking through your child’s feelings, and returning to everyday routines are some ways you can help your child. If you feel you need additional support in helping your child recover, resources are available. Contact your pediatrician or child care provider to put you in contact with a trained mental health professional.

For more information on how you can help your child recover from a traumatic experience, visit the National Child Traumatic Stress Network for resources.