Understanding Childhood Trauma
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Have you heard these terms and wondered what they are or if they’re the same thing? Maybe you’ve never heard of some of them, or perhaps you’re well-versed in trauma. In general, most people fall somewhere in between and have only a vague idea of what trauma is. Often, people hear “trauma” and envision Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) associated with soldiers who have experienced war trauma.
Many people are unaware of the other types and causes of trauma– and that a significant number of children are impacted by these forms of trauma. According to Dr. Bessel van der Kolk (a leading trauma authority), most people don’t understand that “for every soldier that comes home damaged from war, there are about 30 children at home who are just as damaged, if not more” (by trauma).
A Personal Tidbit:
Like so many others, before my son was diagnosed with a trauma disorder I was almost completely unaware of what “trauma” was, or what the causes and symptoms looked like– even though I’d been living with it for years!
I knew my son had been through hard things. I was certainly aware of his daily struggles with anxiety, anger, impulsivity, and several strange behaviors that made our days chaotic and difficult– but I didn’t understand WHY. We had been through lots of therapy appointments trying to figure that out. There had been speculation about Oppositional Defiance Disorder, Reactive Attachment Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, etc., he was even tested for Autism. Nothing completely fit–until we landed on trauma. The diagnosis he finally received: “Other Specified Trauma-Related Disorder”.
What is that? I was told at the time that they didn’t have another label for it but that it was “similar to PTSD”. At least I now had a starting point! I put on my detective cap and dug into learning all I could about “Trauma”.
What I’ve discovered is fascinating, infuriating, and heartbreaking!
But I’ve also found immense relief just in the knowing–knowing there’s a reason behind the behaviors, and knowing which direction to now focus on.
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1. What is trauma?
Trauma is complicated and different for every individual. There are entire books dedicated to explaining trauma– I’ll just touch on the basics.
Simply defined, trauma is anything that is frightening, painful, or icky that a child has experienced, that shocks and overwhelms them– leaving them feeling powerless. The trauma will likely go on to influence the rest of the child’s life and ability to cope.
2. What causes trauma?
There are many causes of trauma. Some are more obvious, but others may be a little surprising. The more well-known causes include:
- sexual abuse
- physical abuse
- undergoing terrifying events such as car accidents, fires, terrorist attacks, etc.
- experiencing natural disasters like tornadoes and earthquakes.
These kinds of experiences may cause trauma that falls into the PTSD category,
Often, people are surprised to learn how much the following kinds of experiences traumatize children:
- Ongoing neglect (both physical and emotional)
- Verbal abuse, including shaming and intimidating children
- Witnessing a loved one being physically or psychologically abused
- Surgery or other invasive medical procedures
- Experiencing the death or loss of a loved one
- Family splitting up due to parents divorcing
- Frequent family moves or foster care placements
- The mother experiencing trauma or high levels of stress during pregnancy
- A difficult birth
- Abrupt separation from birth mother
More recent research (in past 15 years) shows that when these types of traumatic experiences are over-lapping, chronic, and occur during a child’s developmental years (including in the womb), the trauma actually changes the brain at the biological level! The terms being used to describe this form of trauma are Complex Trauma and Childhood Developmental Trauma.
(In the years since my son’s diagnosis, I have found this type of trauma more fully explains what he deals with.)
3. How does trauma impact children?
The impact of trauma on children is profound.
Trauma causes the brain to go into survival mode, and early childhood trauma can rewire the brain. The child may not even remember the abuse or neglect, but somehow, the body remembers– so what may seem like a normal, everyday situation to you, may be a trigger for your child and send them into survival mode (fight, flight, or freeze). When in this mode, all common sense and ability to reason goes right out the window! The sole focus is SURVIVAL, whether logical or not.
Besides the brain becoming programmed differently due to trauma, children are also affected emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.
Additionally, research shows a significant connection between childhood trauma and life-long issues including substance abuse, mental health issues, physical illness, suicide, and homelessness.
4. What are the behaviors and symptoms of childhood trauma?
Each individual responds differently to trauma, but some possible (and common) effects include:
- Difficulty controlling emotions and behaviors
- Attachment and relationship struggles
- Anxiety or fear about new experiences
- Manipulation, lying, and trying to control everything and everyone
- Disrupted sleep habits and/or nightmares
- Memory and concentration issues
- Coordination or motor skill problems
- Feelings of guilt or shame
- Irritability and problems with anger control
- Acting or talking younger than their age
- Rapid mood swings more frequent than other kids their age
- Overreacting–A traumatic response is usually way out of proportion from the event that caused it.
5. Why is it important to understand trauma and its effects on children?
There is a huge lack of understanding and education surrounding the topic of trauma, not only in the caregivers and surrounding community but surprisingly, also in the mental health world–this needs to change! The more knowledge and insight we can gain on this topic, the better chance our children will have to find help, hope, and healing!
For the community surrounding families impacted by trauma:
Often, people just see the behaviors of these kiddos and automatically assign the “bad kid” label. This labeling only adds to the difficulties and shame these precious children carry every day. They don’t need more judgment– they need understanding, loving guidance, and healing!
It is also commonly assumed that the parents aren’t strict enough or don’t discipline. (Or the flip side: When “non-traditional” parenting methods are necessary for forming proper attachments, etc., parents may be blamed for being TOO strict… or mean!) This really adds to the feelings of isolation that are already a struggle for families raising children with hard pasts. Though these assumptions might seem justified when just observing behaviors, please realize there is so much more going on than meets the eye! Careless comments and irritated looks don’t go unnoticed–they are incredibly hurtful and isolating!
It is crucial that as an observer you don’t jump to conclusions and blame parents if you don’t really know what’s going on.
Instead, if you will begin to actively learn how trauma disrupts a child’s development at the biological, psychological, and spiritual levels, you can start to become an agent of change. When you learn to look beyond the behaviors and understand the source, you can offer support instead of judgment and compassion in place of irritation. You can give the gift of grace and understanding instead of making hurtful assumptions.
For the mental health professionals:
It is critical that the mental health community accurately understands the forms and causes of trauma and how they impact children in order to prevent the misdiagnosis, and therefore, mistreatment of the issues.
For the parents and caregivers of children impacted by Childhood Trauma:
Discipline and managing “behaviors” can be some of the toughest parts of parenting children who have endured trauma.
So many of us feel completely lost as we try all manner of consequences with minimal results. (Traditional parenting methods rarely work for traumatized children.) It’s exhausting! The difficult behaviors take center stage and frustration can easily take over.
If we will just pause and look a bit deeper, we can begin to see the reason behind our children’s behaviors and shift the focus from a discipline issue to recognizing the need for training, connection, and healing.
Punishing the behaviors might control the “symptoms” for a time, but unless the root cause is addressed, the behaviors will likely continue and may only get worse.
This takes a shift in our thinking, a lifestyle change, as well as an intentional commitment to study and learn. We need to be willing to change OUR understanding, approach, and reactions for the benefit of our children. It’s not an easy task– but it’s worth it!
If you’re ready to learn more, I HIGHLY recommend The Connected Child as a place to start! The book is packed full of information, examples, and practical application for parenting a child with any kind of traumatic background.
To read a little more of our personal story, check out From Despair to Hope.