We are continually recognizing the impact of child trauma all the way to adulthood.
Trauma can impact growth and development from childhood through teen years and beyond
This article by Joseph Cress is consistent with what we are recognizing to be the reality of those children who have struggled with childhood trauma, and which shows the impact that can permeate negative consequences to their development.
A red flag unfurls when a client says they can’t recall their childhood.
Valerie Domenici takes it as a sign that disassociation may be at play in the ability of the adult to cope with an underlying trauma.
“They should have some memories,” the Carlisle therapist said. “One thing I like to do is ask the general question who they grew up with and where.”
A lack of detail may indicate the person was so traumatized as a child they had numbed themselves to the point where they had stopped forming memories.
“The brain switches off,” said Domenici, a clinical psychologist. “They check out. They disassociate.”
Many of her clients are adult female survivors of child abuse. People traumatized as children tend to find their way into abusive relationships as adults.
“They are drawn to abusers,” Domenici said. “One reason why that happens is the impact of childhood abuse on self-esteem. If you don’t feel very good about yourself, you don’t expect others to treat you well. It feels normal not to be treated well.”
Children are vulnerable if the trauma comes at a time in life when they are developing their sense of identity and a capacity to process feelings.
“It derails them,” Domenici said. The end result can be an adult ill-equipped to handle trauma and prone to post-traumatic stress disorder.
The childhood trauma, though suppressed, could resurface as nightmares or flashbacks or linger on as a problem forming healthy relationships.
A person, place, object or situation could trigger a response in the adult. They may freeze up or flee the scene. They may become aggressive as if ready to fend off an attack.
This is why it’s important for adults to be aware of the effects of trauma on children and how behavior can be a sign of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Liz Campbell is a licensed psychologist and the owner of Campbell Psychological Services, a private practice in Carlisle that specializes in treating children and teens.
While slight differences exist in the criteria for arriving at a diagnosis, the general symptoms of PTSD are the same in children as in adults, Campbell said. These symptoms include:
- The child becoming distressed at reminders of a traumatic event
- The child trying to avoid reminders
- Changes in mood or how the child expresses emotion
- Difficulty concentrating
- Becoming withdrawn
“Caregivers might notice the child freezing up in certain situations or acting out the traumatic event in their play,” Campbell said.
That said, it is important to remember that PTSD is a specific diagnosis and that children tend to show a range of other reactions
that suggest difficulty in coping with a trauma. These reactions include becoming clingy with caregivers, being afraid to be alone and toileting accidents.
“A child might not have PTSD, but still develop signs of depression, anxiety or behavior problems that suggest the trauma has disrupted the child’s well-being,” Campbell said. “A teenager might start engaging in risk-taking behaviors or blowing off school.”
She said many children live with chronic trauma associated with domestic violence, physical/sexual abuse in the family and community violence. “It isn’t always a once and done trauma a child is dealing with,” Campbell said. “The effects of chronic trauma, especially when it involves abuse by caregivers, can be very wide reaching.”
The effects include an increased risk of physical and mental health issues in adulthood along with trouble forming healthy, stable relationships, she said. “We also know that a disproportionate number of teens and adults involved with the justice system have childhood histories of trauma that were probably never treated,” Campbell said.
She said that, just like adults, children can develop a sense of shame or guilt around their trauma, especially if it involves some kind of abuse or assault. “They may believe there is something wrong with me or I’m damaged and carry that with them.”
Symptoms of PTSD could develop, causing a snowball effect that could disrupt their education and interactions with other children. In Pennsylvania, there has been an increase in attention to trauma in children in schools and the juvenile justice system as people are starting to realize the long-term effects.
Safety is key
If an adult suspects a child is suffering from PTSD, it is important to provide a sense of safety rather than react with anger, frustration or punishment toward the child or the cause of the trauma.
Instinct suggests that asking a child to talk about what happened would be too difficult for them or would make the situation worse, Campbell said. But healing can occur if the child is placed in a safe and supportive environment that encourages them to share.
“This takes time and more than words,” Campbell said. “It’s also important to realize that, regardless of what the child has been through, he or she still needs structures, limits and consequences. In fact, these help a child to feel safe.”
If a child is struggling with a traumatic event, the best thing to do is to find a therapist who specializes in working with children and trauma. The most widely researched therapy is Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which involves helping the child develop specific coping skills, talk about the traumatic event and learn safety skills. This can be tricky.
“A 5-year-old isn’t likely to sit on the couch and talk,” Campbell said. “Therapists have to be very creative in finding ways to make therapy engaging for the child. But just like therapy with adults, creating a safe space and a trusting therapy relationship is critical. One thing I love about working with kids is knowing that by intervening early, while they are still young, we can make a huge difference in their futures.”
Understanding what the symptoms look like in a child
When encountering a child that may be acting out or shutting down, all caregivers should stop and consider whether the child has been trauma-impacted. It should be the first question we ask when we suspect that something may not be quite right. Understanding this reality could make a such impact in their capacity and future growth.
Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside