Despite your best efforts to protect your children, it's still possible that they'll be exposed to a traumatic event during their childhood. Unfortunately, any child may witness or even experience a car accident, a house fire, physical violence or a serious injury. Traumatic events such as these can interfere with a child's normal growth and development. Fortunately, there are things caregivers can do to foster resiliency and reduce the damage.
Type of Trauma
An event is considered traumatic if a child perceives that his life is in danger. Therefore, events like a divorce are likely to be stressful but not traumatic for a child. There are two main types of trauma: repeated trauma and single event trauma. Repeated trauma is often experienced by children who live in war zones, violent neighborhoods or homes with ongoing physical or sexual abuse. Children exposed to repeated trauma may suffer more adverse affects than children who experience a single traumatic event. Single event traumas include events such as natural disasters, serious car accidents or witnessing a sibling suffer a life-threatening injury.
Kids' behavior is often a barometer for how they are feeling. Since most young children aren't good at verbalizing their feelings, their behavioral changes often indicate they are struggling to deal with a traumatic event. Increased oppositional behavior, aggression, impulsivity and self-destructive behavior can be common. Other kids go to the opposite extreme and become overly compliant. Changes in eating and sleeping habits may be present as well. Young kids often re-enact the trauma in their play repeatedly. For example, a child who experienced a car accident may portray a car crash in his pretend play over and over as he tries to make sense of what happened.
Traumatic events can affect children's moods and their ability to regulate their emotions. Kids who have been traumatized often get upset easily and have trouble calming down. Increased outbursts and tantrums are common and their emotions may change quickly. They may become hypersensitive to certain sights, sounds, smells or anything that reminds them of the traumatic event. Kids who are exposed to repeated trauma may appear to be detached from their emotions. They may have developed coping skills to help them survive the repeated trauma that cause them to appear numb to emotions.
Physical development may be affected by certain kinds of trauma. Kids who are exposed to repeated trauma may become hypersensitive to physical contact, and they may develop sensorimotor problems. Physical and sexual abuse can lead to many physical health problems. Kids who have been traumatized may report a lot of somatic symptoms, such as stomachaches and headaches.
Trauma can take a toll on a young child's developing brain. Trauma can cause kids to have increased difficulty paying attention. Kids exposed to repeated trauma often have learning difficulties, and their speech and language may be delayed. Processing problems are common, and kids may have difficulty understanding the consequences of their behavior.
Trauma can interfere with a child's ability to develop a healthy and secure attachment to caregivers. Kids who are traumatized may become frightened of being separated from a caregiver, and as a result, they may tend to be overly clingy. For example, a child who was in a car accident with his mother may not want his mother to be out of sight. Kids who are exposed to repeated trauma may be on the other end of the spectrum where they don't seem to develop any close relationships to caregivers. They may isolate themselves and have difficulty asking adults for help.
The good news is that not all kids who are exposed to traumatic events experience ongoing problems. Some kids just seem to be more resilient than others based on their genetic make-up. There are also steps that parents, caregivers, teachers and other adults can take to foster resiliency in kids after they have been traumatized. Children who receive healthy support and comfort from family members and the community are more apt to bounce back after a traumatic event. Professional help can also help foster resilience in kids. Support groups, individual therapy or family therapy can help kids cope with traumatic experiences.
Amy Morin is a licensed clinical social worker who works as a therapist for adults and children. She is also an instructor at a community college, where she teaches courses in psychology and mental health. Morin received her Master of Social Work from the University of New England.