Childhood trauma occurs when a violent or dangerous event happens and overwhelms a child’s ability to cope with what has occurred. These traumas can be the result of many different types of intentional violence or the result of a natural disaster, accident, or war. Children are one of the most vulnerable populations when considering trauma, primarily because they may not be able to recognize or verbalize what they feel after a traumatic experience. It is important that adults understand all the potential signs of a child who may be suffering from trauma in order to help the child receive the best possible care. Here are some common signs of trauma in children to be aware of and recommendations on what to do if a child has experienced traumatic events.
Initial Distress: While initial reactions to trauma may vary depending on the age and development of the child, ethnicity/cultural factors, previous trauma etc, nearly all children will express some type of distress or behavior change immediately after the traumatic event has occurred. These responses are not necessarily cause for concern at this point as children can be resilient and utilize healthy coping mechanisms to handle the trauma on their own. When behaviors change and maintain after the trauma has occurred, it is important for adults to recognize and be aware of these maintained changes in behavior.
Recognizing Child Traumatic Stress: Children who develop reactions that persist and impact their daily lives after the traumatic event(s) have ended are likely to be experiencing Child Traumatic Stress. The American Psychological Association recognizes the following symptoms/behaviors from children who have been exposed to trauma and are experiencing Child Traumatic Stress. These symptoms/behaviors include:
the development of new fears
separation anxiety (particularly in young children)
sleep disturbance, nightmares
loss of interest in normal activities
decline in schoolwork
If these changes in behavior continue to persist long after the traumatic event(s) have occurred, it may be time to seek mental health care for the child.
Next Steps: All children who experience traumatic events do not necessarily experience Child Traumatic Stress; however, if a child is experiencing Child Traumatic Stress from a traumatic experience they can receive mental health care and recover. In addition to mental health care for the child, adults can support and comfort the child by assuring that they are safe and that they are not responsible for what has happened to them.
Through these indicators, you can begin to recognize the signs of childhood trauma and take action if a child is experiencing Child Traumatic Stress. If you are interested in learning more about tools to identify a child struggling with the effects of trauma, how trauma can manifest itself in a child’s behavior, and how to best support a child who has experienced trauma, and you live in the Chicago area, check out the Children and Trauma upcoming workshop coming in the spring!
Learn more about cultural diversity, inclusivity and humility services by checking out resources and training provided by MCS Chicago.
Contributing Writer: Brittany A. Hamilton
Photo Credit: brother's photo