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Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Traumatic Events

Table of Contents

According to reported data, about 35 million U.S children have experienced trauma or adverse experiences1. Unfortunately, most childhood and adolescent traumatic events go unreported. This is usually linked to the fact that most people don’t actually understand traumatic events. This includes what traumatic events mean, how to report them, and how to help children cope with trauma-related symptoms. 

Trauma that occurs during childhood can potentially have lasting effects into adulthood. This is why it is essential for children who have experienced trauma to receive the appropriate treatment. There are options for families to choose from when it comes to trauma treatment for children and adolescents. 

It is recommended for families to explore their options with trusted professionals who can make appropriate treatment recommendations. Trauma treatment can include medication and therapeutic treatment approaches

What is Childhood Trauma?

Childhood trauma refers to scary, violent, dangerous, or life-threatening events that happen to a child between 0-18 years. This kind of experience leads to lasting mental and physical effects. These events don’t necessarily have to affect a child personally but can result from something happening to another person. 

Passive childhood trauma can be impacted by seeing or hearing another person going through a traumatic event. These events include domestic violence, parental illness, divorce, incarceration, and substance abuse. 

As a result of these events, children feel overwhelmed, upset, and helpless. The impact of these events on children can be harmful. Therefore, it is recommended to learn if your child has gone through traumatic events. 

What Causes Childhood and Adolescent Trauma?

Studies about the cause of childhood trauma date back to the mid-1990s. The Adverse Childhood Experience study1 (ACE) was conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. From this study, researchers identified the following ten most traumatic events that a child is most likely to encounter:

From the study, the consequences of these events are usually devastating and would negatively impact the child throughout their lifetime. This is unless the affected child goes through effective trauma therapy.

Less Obvious Causes of Childhood Trauma

Many people assume that childhood trauma results from physical harm or danger. However, anything may leave a child feeling overwhelmed, vulnerable, or alone. This includes another category of childhood trauma referred to as psychological trauma. 

Psychological trauma in children results from personal experience or a perspective of what could have happened to the child. Many children and adults may experience similar events but have different reactions. Some people may be unaffected, but others may end up with long-term debilitating PTSD or trauma. 

When it comes to a child, they are powerless to stop traumatic experiences. So, some of the experiences that you disregard or can get over may turn out to be traumatic events. These can be environment-related situations such as:

Children may also develop psychological trauma as a result of:

What Causes Childhood and Adolescent Trauma?

Childhood trauma may have lingering effects on a child. This portrays in different ways, including:

Signs in Infants to 2 Years

Although young children and toddlers may throw tantrums or become angry, specific symptoms show that they’ve experienced trauma. In most cases, they may show a change in their behavior and how they associate with family members. Some of the signs of childhood trauma at this age include:

Signs in Children Between 3-5 Years

Apart from the symptoms described above, a child between 3-5 years can exhibit other concerning behaviors. Children are expected to explore more at this age and form friendships with other kids. However, traumatized children would show slower development than their peers. They may also portray the following signs:

Signs for Childhood Trauma in Children between 6-12 Years

Children between 6-12 years are more independent. They’re expected to spend most of their time outside with friends and playmates. But if they have childhood trauma, they may develop unusual behaviors such as:

Signs for Childhood Trauma Between 13-18 Years of Adolescence

Teenage years or adolescence can be challenging to parents and youngsters. Therefore, families might miss out on signs associated with their childhood trauma if they are not keen enough. 

Some of the behavior changes associated with childhood trauma during adolescence include:

Signs Associated with Unresolved Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder During Adulthood

Post-traumatic stress disorder is specific mental health that doesn’t affect everyone who experiences trauma. It only affects a small percentage of people with unresolved PTSD in childhood. 

Anyone with unresolved PTSD may portray the following signs during their adulthood:

Adults who are showing these signs, may have unresolved childhood PTSD and should seek treatment as well. 

How Does Trauma Impact Childhood Development?

Children who have experienced trauma may be affected in various ways. For instance, they may be overly sensitive to other people’s moods and always watch out for how others around them react. They may also withhold their emotions from others and never let them see when they’re angry, sad, or afraid. 

These adaptations are present when there is an ever-present physical or emotional threat. These encounters may interfere with how they live, love, or relate with their partners as they grow. 

Complex trauma may affect children in different ways. Here are some of the common effects that may show in childhood development:

Attachment and Relationship

Naturally, children learn to trust their parents and then grow to trust other people in their life. They also come to understand their values as individuals. This is achieved if they have close relationships with their parents, caregivers, and other family members. These children will be able to have relationships with trusted adults in their life. 

Children exposed to childhood trauma through neglect or abuse may have difficulty with attachment to family or caregivers. They are also more vulnerable to stress and may have trouble controlling or expressing their emotions. They may also have problems in romantic relationships with authority figures and friends. 

Effects on the Their Body and Brain Development

The environment partially influences the body and brain development. If a child grows in an environment with constant stress or pressure they may have developmental challenges. In particular, their body’s stress response system and immune system may develop abnormally. Eventually, they will react as if they’re in highly stressful environments, even when exposed to ordinary stress levels. 

For instance, parents and loved ones may notice that they experience physiological reactions to various situations. These reactions include heart pounding, rapid breathing, or completely “shut down” when faced with a stressful situation. People may perceive these reactions are overreacting since they don’t show an equal proportion to the context of typical stressful situations. 

A stressful environment may impact the brain and nervous system development. Consequently, they may limit their brain from developing its full potential since there’s no mental stimulation. Children with complicated traumatic histories can develop recurrent physical complaints like headaches and stomachaches. 

On the other hand, adults with histories of childhood trauma may develop chronic physical issues and compound into risky behaviors2. These behaviors include substance abuse, smoking, and risky diet and exercise behaviors that may lead to obesity. 

Youths may also experience physical and emotional problems from their childhood traumas. For instance, they may over-respond or under-respond to sensory stimuli. For example, adults may notice that they’re hypersensitive to smell, sound, light, or touch. They may also suffer from analgesia or anesthesia where they’re unaware of touch, internal physical sensations, or pain. 

Most youths that develop these physical and emotional issues may be injured without feeling any pain. They can also struggle with a physical problem without knowing about it. Conversely, such youths may also complain of chronic pain in specific body areas. In these cases there is likely no physical cause associated with their complaint. 

Effects on Emotional Response

Children who have experienced a traumatic event often find it challenging to identify, manage, or control their emotions. They usually have limited language to express their feelings. Often, they internalize or externalize their stress, resulting in significant anger, anxiety, or depression. 

These children may also be unpredictable or explosive. They may react to reminders of their traumatic experiences with sadness, avoidance, trembling, or even anger. Unfortunately, these triggers are available everywhere. 

Even the slightest reminder of their trauma can cause a negative or highly emotional reaction. As a result, they may become problematic even in situations that don’t warrant an intense reaction.  

Effects on Their Learning Development

Since children with traumatic-related symptoms cannot calm themselves down, they become overwhelmed in difficult situations. Schools tend to pose various challenges that students should solve. Such children tend to be frustrated and give up even with the slightest challenges. They’re also fearful at most times when presented with challenging situations. 

Effects on Thinking Development

Children who have gone through traumatic experiences may develop thinking problems3, especially when they’re supposed to think through a crisis. They usually find it hard to think through a problem calmly or look out for multiple alternatives.  Such children struggle with sustaining curiosity or attention when exposed to an environment that acts as trauma reminders. Most of these kids have learning difficulties and may need support in their academic environment. 

What Can Parents Do to Help Their Children

Since children with traumatic-related symptoms cannot calm themselves down, they become overwhelmed in difficult situations. Schools tend to pose various challenges that students should solve. Such children tend to be frustrated and give up even with the slightest challenges. They’re also fearful at most times when presented with challenging situations. 

Provide a Stable and Consistent Environment

Containing the space or limiting your child's various activities may help reduce your child's anxiety. This makes the child feel safe since they're in a world that feels predictable since the rules are consistent. This can make them cope with the feeling that the world is ever-changing.

Creating a consistent and stable environment will help the child learn consistency in their routine. Children will also learn that they are safe with an authoritative figure. Rules work as invisible parameters that promote their well-being and growth. They are also more aware of what is and is not okay.

Create a Predictable Environment

Anxiety is defined as the fear of the unknown. Therefore, it can be helpful for parents to create an environment that eliminates uncertainty. Predictability and routine gives children who've gone through a traumatic experience control and knowledge. If a parent can set expectations for every event, this adds a high level of predictability.

Children cannot always control their environment. However, parents can add some form of predictability by giving information about what their anxious children can expect in certain situations.

Maintain a Safe Environment

If a parent can manage to limit chaos in their child’s environment, this provides a safe space they can grow. It doesn't necessarily mean that parents should completely avoid some situations, but they should know how to deal with them. Rather than arguing with a partner in the presence of a child, adults may take the arguments in a private place. This will help to limit the child's exposure to tense situations.

You can also help your child by informing them who they would contact in emergencies. You can also provide an open space where they can disclose their thoughts and feelings without judgment. They must have a prior understanding of their parents unconditional support during traumatic events. This will likely increase the sharing of their challenges and experiences.

Treatment for Childhood Trauma

It’s recommended to seek professional mental health services despite applying some of the above mentioned measures. A trusted mental health professional might use the following medical approaches to alleviate your child’s trauma-related symptoms:

Steps for Change Can Help Treat Childhood Trauma

Childhood trauma occurs in various ways. It can have adverse effects on children that drastically limit their development. Parents can adopt multiple measures to help their children cope with trauma-related symptoms. However, involving a professional mental health service is much easier and more effective. 

At Steps for Change, we offer insurance-accepted mental health treatment programs in Edina and Brooklyn. We can help your child cope with childhood trauma. Our therapists employ approved, result-based approaches targeting every child’s unique experiences.

Sources

  1. Felitti, V. J. (n.d.). The Relation Between Adverse Childhood Experiences and Adult Health: Turning Gold into Lead. NCBI. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6220625/Penny, S. C. (n.d.). Did You Know Childhood Trauma Affects Nearly Half of American Children? The National Institute for Children’s Health Quality. https://www.nichq.org/insight/bringing-trauma-forefront-early-childhood-systems
  2. Association of adverse childhood experiences and health risk behaviors among young adults visiting a regional primary healthcare center, Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. (2018, March 29). NCBI. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5875750/
  3. (The Effect of Trauma on the Brain Development of Children, n.d.) https://aifs.gov.au/resources/practice-guides/effect-trauma-brain-development-children
  4. Cohen, J. A., Mannarino, A. P., & Berliner, L. (n.d.). Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Children and Adolescents. Journal of Interpersonal Violence.https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/088626000015011007
  5. Thomas, R., Abell, B., & Webb, H. J. (n.d.). Parent-Child Interaction Therapy: A Meta-analysis. Pediatrics. https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article/140/3/e20170352/38296/Parent-Child-Interaction-Therapy-A-Meta-analysis