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What parents need to know about childhood trauma

While it’s a difficult topic to navigate, parents should be aware of the impact of trauma and how to support their child if they do experience it.
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As parents, our first and most important goal is to keep our children safe. All we want is to protect them from the outside world, but tough situations are inevitable. And when those hard, and potentially traumatic, times come – whether in the form of bullying, living through a natural disaster, or losing a loved one, we’re the ones our children turn to first. That’s a lot of pressure. So how do we identify when our child is struggling – and what can we do about it?

A child experiencing trauma is not only painful for parents to consider, but it can leave lasting impacts on a child’s development and health later in life. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, more than two-thirds of children reported experiencing at least one traumatic event before they turned 16 years old.

While it’s a difficult topic to navigate, parents should be aware of the impact of trauma and how to support their child if they do experience something traumatic.

What is trauma?

So, you’ve likely heard of “trauma,” but what exactly is it? According to the American Psychological Association, it’s an emotional response. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network defines a traumatic event as a, “frightening, dangerous, or violent event that poses a threat to a child’s life or bodily integrity.” When we first thing of the word “trauma,” we probably think of serious, catastrophic events like combat or sexual assault. But Guy Macpherson, a psychologist who focuses on the study of trauma and hosts the podcast “Trauma Therapist Live!”, says that many situations can inflict trauma on children. Think about when a child is neglected or witnesses domestic violence. Or when they’re exposed to a car accident, natural disaster or school shooting. Unfortunately, the list goes on.

And when situations like these do arise, the stress-response system of the brain becomes more sensitive. To put it simply: a child who’s been traumatized by one of these things is likely to be stressed a lot more often. But what does that look like?

Well, picture a child who’s just lived through a hurricane. They might start crying when it’s raining outside. Their brain is just a lot more sensitive to that trigger. A child who’s been abused might be extra sensitive about their personal space, while a child who hasn’t been abused might not get upset when someone gets too close. We call reactions like this amplified responses, and they happen when the “fight or flight” response in the brain is activated.

Research by Dr. Bruce Perry, a psychiatrist and Senior Fellow of the Child Trauma Academy in Houston, Texas, found that when a brain is frequently under high amounts of stress, it starts to become prepared for stress continuously. Think about it this way: If it’s been raining outside every day for the past six months, you’ve probably gotten in the habit of bringing your umbrella and raincoat to work. It’s become second nature to you. Finally, if it stops to rain one day, you might still be a little cautious and bring your raincoat and umbrella – just in case. That’s exactly what the traumatized brain is doing. It’s used to protecting the body from stress. So, when a child who’s grown up under copious amounts of stress finally gets a break, their brain will still function in a protective way.

So, what’s the brain actually doing when it’s stressed? Well, heart rate increases and glucose (a sugar) is released, giving the body more energy. As a result, the child’s body is in a state of alarm—even if there’s no real threat. They might become hyper and act out or become disruptive. For this very reason, many children who are experiencing trauma are misdiagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD).

Changes in the brain don’t stop there. Nicole Kabalkin, a licensed clinical social worker at Milestones Psychology, says that hormones flood the child’s brain and impair different areas of the limbic system, which controls learning and memory (in the hippocampus) and processes emotion (in the amygdala). And the prefrontal cortex is also affected by trauma -- the part of the brain that controls executive functioning skills like problem solving and planning ahead.

Kabalkin goes on to say that if you only have a certain amount of energy in your brain, and it’s all being directed toward survival skills, then those higher-level functioning parts just aren’t going to develop at a normal rate. For example, if you have a limited budget, you’ll probably put your money toward what you need to survive – food, water, a roof over your head. That’s the baseline. You’ll worry about directing your money toward other, less necessary things once those basics are covered. In the brain, energy works the same way. If it’s being told that energy should go toward survival, then that energy isn’t reaching the higher-level areas in the way it should, where learning, memory and emotion live. In the words of Kabalkin, “How can we expect kids to really pay attention in class when they’re just worried about basic survival?”

This, Kabalkin says, can lead to kids having difficulties learning how to memorize, problem solve and process emotion. Their brains just aren’t working that way.

When do kids experience trauma?

There’s no clear definition of what a traumatic event is, because it varies from person to person. “Ten people can experience the same event and each react differently,” Kabalkin said. “Trauma impacts everyone differently based on multiple factors – their prior experiences, attachment style, predisposition, sociocultural factors, and stage of development. It’s these factors that are more likely to determine a child’s response to trauma, rather than the nature of the event itself.” Some will walk away from a situation with long-term repercussions, and others won’t.

How does trauma impact kids?

So, what would happen if we didn’t acknowledge trauma in our kids? Well, studies have found that early childhood trauma increases health risks later in life. And we have proof. A landmark study by CDC-Kaiser Permanente in 1995 surveyed adults who had been traumatized as children – and the results are telling.

The study, called, “The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study” coined the term “ACE,” – a frequently used term in the world of trauma studies. The groundbreaking research focused on the relationship between childhood trauma and health risks in adulthood. They divided this trauma, or ACEs, into three categories: abuse, neglect and household challenges.

After studying people exposed to all three types of trauma, they concluded that there is indeed a strong relationship between the amount of exposure to ACEs during childhood and the development of risk factors for disease later in life. Some of these diseases and risk factors include:

  • Traumatic brain injury, fractures, burns
  • Depression, anxiety, suicide, PTSD
  • Unintended pregnancy, pregnancy complications, fetal death
  • HIV/STDs
  • Cancer, diabetes
  • Alcohol and drug abuse, unsafe sex
  • Impacts on education, occupation, income

How can I tell if my child is struggling with trauma?

Dr. Macpherson said the most important thing for parents to be aware of is change in behavior. Are they able to go to school? Have they isolated themselves in school? Are they acting out? Do they still want to participate in school activities? Can they focus on schoolwork? To put it simply, Macpherson says to pay attention to and be involved with your kids.

What can parents do?

Unfortunately, there’s no perfect solution to helping your child recover from trauma. However, there are simple activities and practices you can employ to help them feel safe.

1. Encourage them to verbalize their feelings

Kabalkin says providing a safe space for children to talk is key in helping them sort out their feelings surrounding their trauma. The Child Mind Institute suggests letting your child know that they can always express their feelings to you, and look for natural ways to open up a discussion about their emotions.

2. Keep consistency in routine.

The Child Mind Institute also says that by having a set schedule, kids will feel safe and secure. After a traumatic event, routine helps kids predict their immediate futures and understand that life will be okay again. For example, set morning routines, bedtimes and mealtimes will establish a sense of normalcy in the child’s life.

3. Answer questions honestly.

Questions will be frequent, especially when situations arise that cause frequent change in your child’s life. It’s important to take time to answer those questions in a reassuring way while also being honest. Children can ask some pretty hard-to-answer questions at times, and it’s better to respond with “I don’t know” than to speculate, according to the Child Mind Institute.

4. Keep your child busy!

Guidance from the Child Mind Institute encourages parents to plan play dates with their child’s friends and make sure your child is going to school – this is especially important if these routine parts of their days have been disrupted.

5. Seek professional help when appropriate.

If your child is not able to go to school, can’t focus in school, or is having tantrums at school, it might be time for professional intervention. Kabalkin says that a lot of families want to avoid therapy, but the earlier the intervention, the better.

Trauma isn’t easy to avoid – and it’s definitely not a fun topic to confront. But, the more prepared parents can be to help, the better off children will be not just now, but throughout their lives.

*Disclaimer: This piece is not meant to replace advice or recommendations from a medical professional. If you have any questions about your child's health, please seek advice from a doctor.