Defining Trauma in Children
Trauma is the response to really upsetting events that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope. If you or your child has been through something traumatic, you may feel helpless or have any number of other intense feelings. Sometimes you feel “stuck” in the past. They react to things differently than they did before the stressful experience. Traumatic events include emotional, sexual, physical abuse or neglect, sexual assault, experiencing or witnessing interpersonal violence, bullying, vehicle accident, community violence, unexpected death of a loved one, experiencing a natural or man-made disaster, and exposure to war or combat violence.
Not every child develops PTSD
Not every child who goes through a traumatic event ends up with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In fact, not every adult who experiences trauma develops PTSD. Let’s say two people are in a car accident. One person can perceive the event as traumatic whereas the other does not. There are many reasons for this difference. There are several factors that affect a person’s response to trauma which include:
- Previous experiences
- Developmental level
- Perception of the event
- How close they were to the event (did your child hear about a car crash versus were they in the car?)
- How serious the event was
- What support was available during or right after the event
- How caregivers responded
There are many different ways children react to trauma
How a child responds to trauma and what their trauma symptoms look like may vary depending on their age and development level. For example, infants and toddlers may have memory problems, scream or cry excessively, have a poor appetite, have low weight or digestive problems, withdraw from others and develop separation anxiety. School-aged children may have difficulties focusing or learning in school, act out in social situations, imitate the abusive/traumatic event, be verbally abusive, be unable to trust others or make friends, believe they are to blame for the traumatic event, lack self-confidence and experience stomach aches or headaches. Adolescents may have difficulties in school, skip school, run away, be involved in violent or abusive dating relationships, think about or commit suicide, do something that could hurt themselves, abuse substances, have sex, withdraw from others, and experience anxiety or depression.
Trauma Symptoms are normal right after a trauma
These are a few potential affects of trauma. The truth is that every child responds differently to a stressful situation. Often, these trauma symptoms will decrease or disappear as time goes on.
For instance, a child who saw their mom break a leg and go to the hospital in an ambulance may show some trauma symptoms immediately afterward. They may play “broken leg” or “doctor” with their stuffed animals or friends. Perhaps they’ll jump at the sound of an ambulance siren. Or they repeatedly ask mom if she’s ok or cry more when they separate from mom. But after awhile, things go back to normal. Their play begins to revolve around other interests and their concern about health issues becomes less frequent.
However, when symptoms last more than a month and begin to affect the person’s ability to function, the person may be suffering from PTSD. You can read more about PTSD here.
Trauma has a physical impact on children
Childhood trauma impacts more than just a child’s feelings. In fact, there’s a reason your child is acting differently. Childhood trauma actually impacts the child’s brain. More specifically, trauma impacts the parts of the brain that control fear responses, emotional regulation, decision making, planning, learning and memory. In other words, your child may have trouble controlling their feelings. They may forget things. Perhaps they get upset easier. Or they just don’t seem as “rational” as they used to be. Maybe they’re always worried about things now. It’s like they’re on edge all the time. These are all normal and expected responses to trauma for a child.
Fight or Flight: A normal response to a scary situation
When something scary happens, it activates a person’s “fight or flight” response. Even after things are safe again, the child’s brain may still be feeling like they are in danger. Their bodies and minds are constantly on high alert. They are on the look out for potential threats. This may make it difficult for children to pay attention at school, go to new places or interact with people they do not know. Children who have been through trauma often have difficulties in developing language skills. They have trouble solving problems, paying attention, remembering, responding to social cues and regulating their emotions.
Sometimes, kids are angry after a stressful or traumatic experience
I’ve also seen other kids who are angry about what happened. A child who normally acts polite, follows directions and obeys rules now disobeys their parents, gets in trouble at school, participates in fights and fails classes.
They may be anxious and consumed with fear that something bad will happen again. The child may become very reliant on their caregivers and even start to act younger than their age. They may feel a sense of guilt for allowing the abuse or other event to occur. Children are often embarrassed to talk about what happened. Or perhaps they talk about it nonstop.
I’ve seen kids who acknowledge that they have been through trauma but have seemed to accept it and moved on.
The good news: Trauma therapy can help your child and family begin to heal.
One of my favorite things about doing therapy is watching people make progress. Children and their families have walked into my office experiencing a wide range of emotions. Often, they feel more than one feeling at the same time and this can be confusing. I’ve seen children come to me who are sad and show signs of depression. They may also start to injure themselves or even attempt to commit suicide. Watching these kids find healing and move forward is my favorite part of my job. It’s amazing to watch children process their experiences and start to cope with their emotions!
Parents have reactions to a child’s trauma too.
You love your child more than anything on earth. Therefore, it’s only natural that you experience strong feelings about what happened too. Maybe you feel guilty. You feel like you should have somehow protected your child. Or maybe you’re angry toward the person who hurt your child, the situation, how an agency responded or even yourself. You’re sad, heartbroken or feel like your child was robbed of something. You worry about how this will impact your child’s future. In fact, you find yourself worrying about them a lot. Maybe you’ve reacted by becoming really protective. But then, you worry you’re over protective now.
The truth is that you’re in a stressful situation yourself as the parent. And you deserve support too. Whether that’s counseling for yourself or just help from a professional who’s treating your child to understand what they’re going through.
Trauma Therapy can help your child…and family
Many of these families who were really struggling when we met later leave my office generally content. Yes, the trauma still happened. However, the child (and family) have learned skills to cope with the trauma. They have processed their trauma in a safe, supportive setting. Now, they are able to better cope with their feelings. They have been able to move on from the trauma. Their trauma is no longer a dark cloud hanging over them. Their symptoms of PTSD have disappeared and they can move on.
I once received a letter from a parent who said after therapy was completed she “had her child back.” For me that is one of the best compliments I’ve received. That child and mother did hard work but I’m thankful I was there to be part of their healing.
Begin Trauma Therapy in Columbia, MO
What happened to your child will always be part of their story. However, they don’t have to live with PTSD symptoms. Your child doesn’t have to live feeling depressed, fearful or constantly “on edge.” Counseling can help your child heal and you both begin to find a new sense of normalcy.
At Aspire Counseling, we believe every child deserves to feel supported, capable and excited about the future. To see if one of our therapists is the right fit, please follow these three easy step:
1) Call our client care coordinator at 573-328-2288 or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a free consultation.
2) Meet with one of our therapists and talk about your concerns.
3) Bring your child to counseling regularly and encourage them to work with their therapist so you can watch them start to find healing.
About the Author:
Kristi Sveum, MSW, LCSW is a child trauma therapist who uses TF-CBT, an evidence based trauma treatment for kids. Kristi has worked with children and adolescents who have experienced trauma for over 14 years. She has worked with youth who have been through traumas as simple as a big move or as complicated as severe child abuse. She’s watched countless children heal from PTSD symptoms.
Kristi believes in the power of counseling to help children improve their self esteem, learn new coping strategies and face future stressful situations confidently. Furthermore, Kristi has helped caregivers learn to manage their own feelings about a child’s trauma. She understands how counseling can support the entire family. Kristi would love to help your family find healing.