More than half of people experience a traumatic event at some point during their childhood — and more than a quarter of children will witness or experience trauma before the age of four. Between school shootings, COVID-19, and families being separated at the US-Mexico border, incidents of childhood trauma have pervaded the news in recent years.
What is childhood trauma?
Trauma is defined as the experience of an emotionally distressing event that results in lasting mental and/or physical effects. When trauma occurs, it can leave a lasting impact because our bodies are programmed to remember danger. When someone is exposed to a reminder of that danger, their body enters alarm mode which triggers the fight, flight, or freeze response.
This response is an adaptation to protect us from harm, but it may fire off in traumatized people even when there is no actual danger present. The fight, flight, or freeze response can cause people to become emotionally overwhelmed, act out in harmful ways, or withdraw and avoid other people and tasks.
According to Dr. Renee Boynton-Jarrett of the Boston University School of Medicine, childhood trauma can result in some of the following impacts:
- Toxic stress (a prolonged degree of stress compounded by inadequate coping skills);
- Shortened attention span;
- Trouble with school or daily routines;
- Difficulty mastering new skills;
- Difficulty forming relationships;
- Anxiety and/or depression.
Signs of trauma in children
Trauma can show up in a number of ways in children of all ages, but it’s particularly difficult to identify in infants and younger kids who can’t yet express their feelings and experiences effectively. Dr. Chandra Ghosh Ippen of the Child Trauma Research Program at University of California, San Francisco shared some signs of childhood trauma that may show up — particularly in younger kids:
- Clinginess or separation anxiety;
- Lashing out in anger or rejection;
- Disruption of regulatory processes like sleep and eating;
- Hyper-sensitivity or crying about things that seem unrelated to the trauma;
- OR, they may block out the trauma and continue daily life as usual, but may act out at certain triggering times like mealtime or bedtime.
Dr. Boynton-Jarrett points out that adults often underestimate the capacity little ones have to feel intense emotions like grief or distress. Even if a child seems too young to understand a distressing event, it can still have long-lasting and disruptive biological and psychological impacts.
Supporting a child with trauma
Healing from trauma is rarely a linear progression, and tends to occur in bursts and waves. Meeting a child with trauma where they are, and providing support at every stage of the healing process is key to helping them thrive. Here are some tips from childhood trauma experts that you can use at home:
- Acknowledge their trauma. Although a child may be too young to understand some aspects of their traumatic experience, they still know how it made them feel. Let your child know that what they went through was not ok, and that it’s normal to feel any number of ways — from depressed to anxious to numb — about what happened.
- Approach with curiosity. Rather than reacting with strong emotions or judgments about what happened to your child, ask them what they’re feeling in a neutral way. You want to avoid projecting your own emotions onto traumatized kids, and instead let them make up their own minds about how to feel about their experience.
- Be aware of triggers. Even seemingly innocuous things can trigger traumatic memories. For example, kids who have witnessed gun violence may be triggered by fireworks, smoke, or large crowds. Keep an eye out for specific things that may trigger your child, so you can provide extra support during those moments.
- Remind kids they are safe. When a traumatic memory is triggered, either consciously or subconsciously, it’s normal to have physical and emotional responses that might occur when we’re in danger — even if we’re actually not. If your child is feeling triggered or activated after experiencing trauma, let them know that they can feel their feelings in safety.
- Practice co-regulation. Model the calm you want to see in your child. You can use physical touch, breathing techniques, or moving together to help your child mimic your lower stress level and manage their trauma response more effectively. For example, take long, slow breaths as you hold your child and encourage them to breathe with you.
- Create a secret code. Dr. Ippen shared the example of a teacher who had a student with trauma that would come to school particularly wound up some days. She told him that if he was feeling like a “tiger” when he got to school, to roar at her to let her know. This secret code, where the student would roar at his teacher when he was feeling particularly activated by his trauma, allowed her to provide extra support on those days.
Raising a child with trauma can be full of ups and downs, but these tips from childhood trauma experts can help foster an environment of trust and safety that is vital for their healing process. Meet your child on their level and practice patience and empathy when they act on their feelings of distress. In time, kids can learn to regain trust and security with consistent support.