According to the National Institute of Mental Health, childhood trauma is defined as: “The experience of an event by a child that is emotionally painful or distressful, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects.”

Part of growing up as a child is encountering bad things; most children can’t be entirely protected from this. Some of these bad things are small, like not being picked first for a team, to being unfriended on social media, or the death of a pet. Others are more substantial, like a natural disaster that abolishes a home, abuse, or death of a loved one.  Some can also rock a child’s sense of safety, like violence or substance abuse in a parent. Something as simple as being in a car accident or a child overhearing repeated, intense arguments between their parents can be traumatic for some children.

At the end of the day, no child is the same as another, and what is traumatic to one may not be traumatic to another—some children simply are more resilient.

While learning to understand, process, and cope with adversity is a natural part of a child’s development process, still, some children get stuck. An experience, or reoccurring experiences, may leave a child with an overpowering sense of fear and loss, making them feel that they have no safety or control over their lives. These feelings can overwhelm some children with such intensity that it begins to impact their physical, emotional, social or intellectual development. This is childhood trauma. 

Trauma not only impacts the child’s core of who they are, but also significantly impacts their developing brain.

[Click on this link to watch a short video on the neurological impact of trauma]

Some Leading Causes

The most common causes of childhood trauma include:

  • Accidents
  • Bullying/cyberbullying
  • Chaos or dysfunction in the house (such as domestic violence, parent with a mental illness, substance abuse or incarcerated)
  • Death of a loved one
  • Emotional abuse or neglect
  • Physical abuse or neglect
  • Separation from a parent or caregiver
  • Parental Alienation
  • Sexual abuse
  • Stress caused by poverty
  • Sudden and/or serious medical condition
  • Violence (at home, at school, or in the surrounding community)
  • War/terrorism

Untreated, trauma can leave a lasting impression on the quality of a child’s life and can impact them long into adulthood.

That being said; there is good news. Trauma is treatable. And with the appropriate supports, children can heal and begin to thrive.

Here are just a few ways that you as an adult can help a child

  1. Create an environment of safety.
    First and foremost, traumatized children need to feel they are physically and emotionally safe. Children need to have predictability (i.e., in scheduling/routines, parenting styles) and to know no matter what the behaviour, their caregivers love and support them.
  2. Name it to Tame It.
    Traumatized children are constantly experiencing a “fight, flight, freeze, collapse” reaction to life, as if every moment is dangerous. It works best to speak to the child using language they can comprehend in moments of emotion dysregulation: name the feeling and name what they are feeling in their body.Examples:
    “I can see you’re really frightened right now”
    “That was really scary”
    “ I can see you are breathing really fast and your heart is racing—your feelings are really big right now”
  3. Build Them Up.
    Traumatized children constantly feel like they’re in the passenger’s seat; they need experiences where they feel they are back in control over their lives, and that they get through the bad events. You can help them achieve this by pointing out times they handled a difficult situation,  put effort into  something and achieved an desired outcome, or simply managed an overwhelming emotion. Allowing younger children (2-11 yrs) ample time to play is also helpful, as it is through play children master their traumatic experiences.

October 22, 2018 | Tammy Schamuhn R. Psych

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