Although adults often say things like, “He was so young when that happened. He won’t even remember it as an adult,” childhood trauma can have a lifelong effect. And while kids are resilient, they’re not made of stone.
That’s not to say your child will be emotionally scarred for life if he endures a horrific experience. With appropriate interventions, adults can help kids recover from traumatic experiences more effectively.
But it’s important to recognize when your child may need professional help dealing with a trauma. Early intervention could prevent your child from experiencing ongoing effects of the trauma as an adult.
What Constitutes Childhood Trauma?
There are many different experiences that can constitute trauma. Physical or sexual abuse, for example, can be clearly traumatic for children.
One-time events, like a car accident or a particularly severe natural disaster (like a hurricane, for example), can take a psychological toll on children as well.
Ongoing stress, such as living in a dangerous neighborhood or being the victim of bullying, can be traumatic, even if it just feels like daily life to an adult. In fact, nearly any event can be considered traumatic to a child if:
It happened unexpectedly
It happened repeatedly
Someone was intentionally cruel
The child was unprepared for it
Childhood trauma also doesn’t have to occur directly to the child; for instance, watching a loved one suffer can be extremely traumatic as well. Exposure to violent media can also traumatize children.
Just because an experience is upsetting, however, doesn’t make it traumatic. Parental divorce, for example, will likely affect a child but it isn’t necessarily traumatizing.
It’s also important to remember that just because a child endured a tragedy or a near-death experience, doesn’t mean he’ll automatically be traumatized. Some kids are much less affected by their circumstances than others.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Many children are exposed to traumatic events at one point or another. While most of them experience distress following a traumatic event, the vast majority of them return to a normal state of functioning in a relatively short period of time.
But some children—between 3 and 15 percent of girls and 1 to 6 percent of boys—develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Children with PTSD may re-experience the trauma in their minds over and over again. They may also avoid anything that reminds them of the trauma or they may re-enact their trauma in their play.
Sometimes children believe they missed warning signs predicting the traumatic event. In an effort to prevent future traumas, they become hyper-vigilant in looking for warning signs that something bad is going to happen again.
Children with PTSD may also have problems with:
Anger and aggression
Feelings of isolation
Difficulty trusting others
Even children who don’t develop PTSD may still exhibit emotional and behavioral issues following a traumatic experience. Here are some things to watch out for during the weeks and months after an upsetting event:
Increased thoughts about death or safety
Changes in appetite
Somatic complaints like headaches and stomachaches
Loss of interest in normal activities
Development of new fears
Effect on Long-Term Health
Traumatic events can affect how a child’s brain develops. And that can have lifelong consequences.
Studies show that the more adverse childhood experiences a person has, the higher their risk of health and wellness problems later in life. Childhood trauma may increase an individual’s risk of:
Coronary heart disease
Additionally, a study published in 2016 in Psychiatric Times noted that the prevalence of suicide attempts was significantly higher in adults who experienced trauma, such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, and parental domestic violence, as a child.
Effect on Relationships
A child’s relationship with his caregiver—whether it’s parents, grandparents or otherwise—is vital to his emotional and physical health. This relationship and attachment helps the little one learn to trust others, manage emotions and interact with the world around them.
When a child experiences a trauma that teaches him that he cannot trust or rely on that caregiver, however, he’s likely to believe that the world around him is a scary place and all adults are dangerous—and that makes it incredibly difficult to form relationships throughout their childhood, including with peers their own age, and into the adult years.
Children who struggle to maintain healthy attachments to caregivers are likely to struggle with romantic relationships during adulthood. An Australian study of more than 21,000 child abuse survivors age 60 and older reported a higher rate of failed marriages and relationships.
How to Help a Child Who Has Been Traumatized
Family support can be key to reducing the impact trauma has on a child. Here are some ways to support a child after an upsetting event:
Encourage your child to talk about his feelings and validate his emotions.
Answer questions honestly.
Reassure your child that you’ll do everything you can to keep him safe.
Stick to your daily routine as much as possible.
If your child has been exposed to traumatic circumstances and you’ve noticed changes in her mood or behavior, talk to her pediatrician. A physician can evaluate your child’s health and, if necessary, make a referral for mental health treatment.
Depending on your child’s age and needs, she may be referred for services such as cognitive behavioral therapy, play therapy, or family therapy. Medication may also be an option to treat your child’s symptoms.
By Amy Morin, LCSW
Reviewed by Joel Forman, MD