Psychological trauma is a type of damage to the mind that occurs as a result of a severely distressing event. Trauma is often the result of an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds one’s ability to cope or integrate the emotions involved with that experience. A traumatic event involves one’s experience or repeating events of being overwhelmed that can be precipitated in weeks, years, or even decades as the person struggles to cope with the immediate circumstances, eventually leading to serious, long-term negative consequences.
How Does Trauma Affect Children?
The effects of trauma on children are far more pervasive than adults imagine. The National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence found that over 60% of children surveyed experienced some form of trauma, crime, or abuse in the prior year, with some experiencing multiple traumas. Often, children and adolescents do not have the necessary coping skills to manage the impact of stressful or traumatic events. As such, as many as one in three students who experience a traumatic event might exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Following a child’s exposure to a traumatic event, parents and teachers are likely to observe the following symptoms:
- Reexperiencing — constantly thinking about the event, replaying it over in their minds, nightmares.
- Avoidance — consciously trying to avoid engagement, trying not to think about the event.
- Negative Cognitions and Mood — blaming others or self, diminished interest in pleasurable activities, inability to remember key aspects of the event.
- Arousal — being on edge, being on the lookout, constantly being worried.
Situations That Can Traumatize A Child
- Physical or sexual abuse
- Abandonment, betrayal of trust (such as abuse by a caregiver), or neglect
- The death or loss of a loved one
- Life-threatening illness in a caregiver
- Automobile accidents or other serious accidents
- Witnessing domestic violence
- Life-threatening health situations and/or painful medical procedures
- Witnessing or experiencing community violence (e.g., drive-by shooting, fight at school, robbery)
- Witnessing police activity or having a close relative incarcerated
- Life-threatening natural disasters
- Acts or threats of terrorism
Resilience and Recovery
Some children, if given support, will recover within a few weeks or months from the fear and anxiety caused by a traumatic experience. However, some children need more help over a longer period of time in order to heal, and may need continuing support from family, teachers, or mental health professionals. Anniversaries of the event or media reports may act as reminders to the child, causing a recurrence of symptoms, feelings, and behaviors.
Children exposed to violence often need adult support to learn how to de-escalate to manage emotions and behavior. They need encouragement to interact with peers in a mutually satisfying manner.
Just one relationship with an emotionally available caregiver helps children acquire the resilience they need to overcome the effects of trauma.
Adapted from Reaching and Teaching Children Who Hurt, by Susan E. Craig