The impact of trauma on children: Recognizing signs and promoting healing

child trauma

Children can experience trauma from different sources, and it is crucial to recognize the signs and promote healing for their well-being. It is more prevalent than commonly believed. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, over two-thirds of children have reported experiencing at least one traumatic event by the time they reach the age of 16. It is important to acknowledge that children may respond to trauma differently than adults. They may not have the vocabulary or cognitive abilities to express their emotions or make sense of their experiences. Understanding the various sources of trauma and their effects on children is essential in providing the necessary support and interventions

Understanding childhood trauma

Childhood trauma can manifest in diverse ways, varying based on the circumstances and the individual. In general, it refers to situations where a child directly experiences, witnesses, or learns about a threatening or dangerous event. 

Common sources of trauma in children

Children can be exposed to trauma through various common sources, and the impact of these experiences on their well-being can vary significantly from person to person. The way children respond to trauma can be shaped by their age, resilience, support systems, and coping mechanisms. 

  • Abuse: Child abuse can take various forms, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect. SAMHSA reported that in 2015, there were more than 680,000 cases of child abuse and neglect in the United States. 
  • Neglect: According to SAMHSA’s findings, in the year 2019, there were 1,840 reported cases of children who lost their lives as a result of abuse and neglect in the United States. Neglect occurs when a child’s basic physical and emotional needs are consistently not met by their caregivers. This can include a lack of food, shelter, supervision, affection, or medical care. 
  • Death of a loved one: The death of a loved one, such as a parent, sibling, or close relative, can be profoundly traumatic for children. It can cause feelings of grief, sadness, confusion, and fear. Research shows that approximately 2.5 million children in the United States, which accounts for around 3.5% of children under the age of 18, have encountered the loss of a parent.
  • Bullying/cyberbullying: Bullying, whether in person or through digital means (cyberbullying), entails repeated acts of aggression, intentional harm, or harassment directed at a child by their peers. It can manifest physically, verbally, or socially. Among high school students, bullying is prevalent, with approximately 1 in 5 students reporting being bullied at school, while approximately 1 in 6 students have experienced cyberbullying.

Signs of trauma in children

The adverse effects of trauma on children’s overall well-being, including their physical, mental, social, and emotional aspects, can be significant. If left untreated or unresolved, childhood trauma can persist into adulthood.

  • Emotional signs: According to a 2021 study, individuals who have experienced childhood trauma often display low self-esteem and are more susceptible to experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety. Children who have experienced trauma may exhibit a range of emotional and behavioral signs. These can include feelings of sadness, withdrawal, or depression, along with nightmares or sleep disturbances.
  • Behavioral signs: Trauma in young children can have significant impacts on brain development, particularly in areas responsible for emotional regulation, attention, cognition, and impulse control. In a particular study, it was discovered that 45% of individuals diagnosed with eating disorders had a background involving sexual abuse or other types of childhood psychological trauma. 

Impact of childhood trauma

Experiencing a traumatic event sets off a chain reaction in both the body and mind. The sudden surge of stress hormones activates the fight-or-flight response, which can have enduring consequences for physical, mental, and relationship well-being. 

  • Physical impact: Children who experienced significant adversity, such as abuse or living with substance abusers, had a 50% higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease in adulthood, as per a recent study in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
  • Mental impact: Childhood trauma is strongly associated with mental health challenges, as evidenced by a 2020 study that highlights a particularly strong correlation between childhood trauma and anxiety in adulthood. It can significantly increase the risk of developing mental disorders such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), dissociative disorders, and substance use disorders. 
  • Relationship impact: Childhood trauma can profoundly influence a person’s ability to form and maintain healthy relationships. Trauma survivors may struggle with trust, intimacy, and emotional connections due to fear of vulnerability or being hurt again. In a study involving children between the ages of 8 and 12, it was discovered that those who had experienced sexual abuse reported significantly diminished levels of interpersonal trust.

Promoting healing and recovery

Promoting healing and recovery from trauma is a multifaceted process that encompasses various strategies and approaches. Recognizing the profound impact of trauma on individuals, it is crucial to create an environment that is safe, supportive, and conducive to healing.

Social support

  • Creating a safe and supportive environment: It is essential to create an environment that is safe, nurturing, and free from further harm. This includes physical safety, as well as emotional and psychological safety, where individuals feel secure and respected.
  • Establishing trusting relationships and open communication: Building trusting relationships with trauma survivors is vital. Encouraging open and honest communication allows individuals to express their feelings, thoughts, and experiences without judgment or fear of retribution.
  • Providing access to professional help and support services: Offering access to professional help, such as therapists, counselors, or support groups, can provide trauma survivors with specialized guidance and tools for healing. It is important to connect them with appropriate support services that meet their specific needs.

The role of schools and communities

  • Educating teachers and school staff: It is crucial to provide training and education to teachers and school staff on trauma-informed practices. This equips them with the knowledge and skills to recognize and respond to the needs of trauma-affected students effectively. 
  • Creating trauma-sensitive classrooms and school environments: Schools can adopt trauma-sensitive approaches by creating safe, predictable, and nurturing classroom environments. This includes implementing trauma-informed policies and practices that prioritize emotional and physical safety, establish clear boundaries, and promote a sense of belonging and connection among students. 
  • Raising awareness and reducing stigma: Schools and communities play a vital role in raising awareness about trauma and its effects. By promoting open discussions and educating students, parents, and community members about trauma, it helps reduce stigma and fosters a compassionate and supportive environment. 

The takeaway

Trauma can have devastating effects on children, and it is crucial for parents, caregivers, and professionals to recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma. By providing a safe and supportive environment, offering appropriate interventions, and building resilience, children can overcome the impact of trauma and lead healthy and fulfilling lives. It is our responsibility as a society to prioritize the well-being of our children and ensure they have access to the necessary resources and support to heal from trauma. By doing so, we can help break the cycle of trauma and create a brighter future for generations to come.

Shauna Larson, a passionate mental wellness advocate. For the last five years, she employs her personal experience and deep understanding of mental health to illuminate the complexities and challenges that many face every day. Her thoughtful insights and relatable narratives have been featured in a variety of publications, cultivating a loyal readership that values her authentic voice and practical advice.