Trauma in Childhood and its Impact on Emotional and Physical Health Thumbnail

Without early help, the repercussions of childhood trauma can be crippling and endure a lifetime. Here's how to spot trauma symptoms and seek assistance.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 67% of children will experience at least one traumatic event before the age of 16. While not all children will suffer emotional damage, some may experience lasting effects that impact their lives significantly. Therefore, parents and caregivers must recognize when a child needs professional help to deal with their trauma, as early intervention can help prevent long-term damage.

What Is Childhood Trauma?

Childhood trauma occurs when a child experiences or witnesses a dangerous or frightening event. Trauma can trigger strong, negative emotions and physical responses that persist long after the event. Children may experience terror, helplessness, fear, and physiological reactions like heart palpitations, vomiting, or incontinence. In addition, trauma sets off the fight-or-flight response, causing a person to either fight back or run away in order to survive.

After experiencing trauma, children often feel overwhelmed by their physical and emotional reactions. Unaddressed, chronic reactions to trauma may lead to difficulties with behavior, relationships, development, and physical symptoms such as weight loss (or gain) or pain. The impacts of trauma can last for years and lead to problems later in life.

There are several situations that could potentially be traumatizing for a child, including:

  • Physical abuse or neglect
  • Sexual assault
  • Seeing or experiencing domestic violence
  • Having a parent or caregiver with severe mental illness
  • Loss of a loved one
  • National disasters or terrorism
  • Incarceration of a parent
  • Violence in the home, school, or community
  • A serious accident or major illness
  • Refugee or war experiences

Signs and Symptoms of Childhood Trauma

Children with trauma and PTSD may exhibit a variety of symptoms. Therefore, children who have experienced trauma should be monitored by their parents/caregivers for changes in their behavior, performance in school, eating habits, or sleep patterns.

Symptoms of trauma that parents or caretakers may observe include, but are not limited to:

  • Avoiding certain people, places, and things
  • A decline in school performance
  • Changes in behavior
  • Having constant worries or anxiety
  • Difficulty with concentration
  • Hyperactivity
  • Intense fear or sadness
  • Self-isolation from family and friends
  • Hyper-independence
  • Hypervigilance
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Changes in appetite
  • Sleeping issues
  • Rebelling against authority figures
  • Anger or irritability

Children's reactions to traumatic events can differ depending on their age, stage of development, support system, and life experiences. These reactions often go beyond emotional symptoms.

Impacts of Childhood Trauma

Experiencing trauma can affect a child's brain development and, if left untreated, mayresult in long-term physical and emotional harm.

Emotional Health

Children who have experienced trauma may experience difficulty understanding, expressing, and managing emotions. As a result, they may develop depression, anxiety, or anger due to internalizing and/or externalizing stress responses. Children who have experienced trauma may react to reminders of traumatic events with trembling, anger, sadness, or avoidance. They can react frequently, experience extreme reactions, and have difficulty calming down when upset.

When children learn that the world can be dangerous and not everyone can be trusted, they may become more guarded when interacting with others and perceive situations as stressful. Although this response is protective in times of danger, it can be problematic in situations when such reactions are unnecessary. Alternately, some children become emotionally numb to threats, making them more susceptible to harm.

When trauma impairs emotional regulation and children are unable to calm themselves, they can easily become overwhelmed. For example, they may give up on simple tasks that cause frustration. In addition, children exposed to early and intense traumatic events are more likely to be fearful in many situations and suffer from depression and anxiety.

Physical Health

From infancy to adolescence, biological development is heavily influenced by a child's environment. When a child is persistently or traumatically stressed, his or her immune system may not develop normally. Later, when the child or adult is subjected to ordinary stress levels, their system may respond as if they are under enormous stress.

A stressful situation may induce severe physical reactions, such as rapid breathing and heart palpitations. An individual may also completely shut down. These responses are usually disproportionate to normal stress and can be perceived by others as excessive or disconnected.

A stressful environment can also negatively affect brain development. Lack of mental stimulation in neglectful environments may limit the brain's ability to develop fully.

Recurrent physical complaints, such as headaches or stomach aches, can also develop in children with complex trauma history. Additionally, they may develop unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking, substance abuse, or poor diet and exercise habits, which affect their physical health.

Children who have experienced trauma may also suffer from body dysregulation, a condition in which they overreact or underreact to sensory input. For example, they may suffer from hypersensitivity to sounds, smells, touch, or light. They may also experience anesthesia and analgesia, impairing their ability to perceive pain, touch, or internal physical sensations.

It has also been shown that childhood trauma increases the risk of developing chronic illnesses in adulthood. According to a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, adverse childhood experiences increase the risk of developing chronic illnesses. In particular, children with repeated trauma are more likely to develop asthma, coronary heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.

How is Childhood Trauma Treated?

Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is very effective for children who have experienced trauma. During treatment sessions, a mental health professional will assist the child in identifying and treating any problems arising from traumatic stress.

Psychotherapy consists of various methods for treating trauma, including:

Cognitive processing therapy (CPT): Often a first choice when treating PTSD, CPT helps children reduce negative thoughts and barriers to thriving after trauma. PTSD education and processing are typically followed by skill development to identify and address unhealthy thoughts related to traumatic events.

Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT): Specifically tailored to children, TF-CBT uses educational and psychological techniques to teach children and parents how to communicate, develop coping skills, learn relaxation techniques, construct trauma narratives, and manage potentially harmful behaviors.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): In this form of therapy, a mental health provider uses bilateral stimulation, typically repetitive eye movements, to rewire memories of traumatic events. By reducing emotional reactions to specific triggers, EMDR helps the brain heal.

Narrative exposure therapy (NET): This technique is a short-term individual intervention that places traumatic experiences on a narrated timeline. NET allows children to reflect on their whole lives, fostering an understanding of trauma and a sense of self.

Prolonged exposure therapy (PE): This form of therapy is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy often used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. PE aims to help children confront painful, trauma-related memories, fears, feelings, and situations in a controlled and safe environment with their therapist.

Play therapy: Typically used with children aged 3 to 12, play therapy helps children work through difficult thoughts and feelings through play. During play therapy sessions, the therapist observes a child's play patterns and uses them to address trauma and help the child develop coping mechanisms.

While the therapies mentioned above are extremely effective, a healthcare or mental health professional may also prescribe medication. Medications can sometimes be used in conjunction with one of the therapies listed above. For instance, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are commonly prescribed if depression is experienced as a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Helping Your Child Cope with Trauma

Being a parent or caregiver to a child who has experienced a traumatic event can be very painful. As parents or caregivers, it is vital to ensure that children who have experienced traumatic events get the support they need to thrive and move forward.

If your child has been traumatized, following these steps can assist them with recovery:

  • Learn as much as you can about trauma
  • Learn your child's triggers
  • Consult a licensed mental health therapist to assess your child's needs
  • If your child is prescribed medication, make sure they take it regularly and as directed
  • Create a safe environment for your child to express themselves in distressing situations
  • Practice self-care and seek mental health support when necessary
  • Work with your child's school to ensure they receive appropriate academic support during times of emotional distress
  • In times of major crisis, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.

Trauma-Informed Care at CHE

While it's normal for children to feel distressed following a traumatic event, persistent symptoms can negatively affect their emotional and physical well-being. The earlier these issues are addressed, the lower the chances of developing anxiety, depression, or chronic illnesses.

At CHE Behavioral Health Services, we specialize in diagnosing and treating emotional and psychological conditions that can result from childhood trauma. With compassionate and effective care, our providers help children overcome trauma-related symptoms and develop valuable coping skills in order to flourish.

For more information about childhood trauma treatment options offered by CHE Behavioral Health Services, please call 888-515-3834. We are ready to talk and ready to listen.