We have begun to discuss how real and prevalent trauma is in our society, particularly in the lives of our children. The impact of trauma—from a neuroscientific perspective—can often be like an emotional injury. One author calls it an emotional concussion, and the seriousness (impact) will be based on the nature of the trauma.
What kind of trauma is it?
The Child Welfare Trauma Training Toolkit, states that trauma can be considered by category in terms of the number of events involved that cause the trauma combined with the impact of the trauma. We can then place these categories on a continuum from a single event, to chronic or frequent events, to complex trauma. Complex trauma describes both exposure to chronic trauma–usually caused by adults entrusted with the child’s care–and the impact of such exposure on the child.
Acute and chronic trauma
Acute trauma is a single traumatic event that is limited in time. Examples include:
- Serious accidents
- Community violence
- Natural disasters (earthquakes, wildfires, floods)
- Sudden or violent loss of a loved one
- Physical or sexual assault
The authors note that during an acute event, children go through a variety of feelings, thoughts, and physical reactions that are frightening in and of themselves. The combination of these responses contribute to their sense of overwhelm.
Chronic trauma refers to the experience of multiple traumatic events. These multiple events may be varied, such as a child who is exposed to domestic violence, involved in a serious car accident, and then becomes a victim of community violence. Or chronic trauma can accumulate from longstanding physical abuse, neglect or war.
Chronic trauma represents cumulative effects. Each new event reminds the child of prior trauma and reinforces its total negative impact. To the child it feels relentless and uncontrollable, a private world of devastation.
Children who have experienced complex trauma have endured multiple interpersonal traumatic events from a very young age. Complex trauma has profound effects on nearly every aspect of a child’s development and his/her ability to function.
This basic understanding of the impact of trauma in children gives us insight into the degrees of trauma. Understanding the degrees of trauma also helps us see that children are impacted differently based on the trauma’s frequency and severity. As we become more aware of the impact of trauma, it will be important to note the significant differences of trauma’s impact in each child.
There will be more in future posts as we continue to understand the impact of trauma to our children.
Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network
Information taken from Enhancing Trauma Awareness, Diane Wagenhals, 2008. All rights reserved. Licensed materials.
Source: Cook et al. (2005). Psychiatr. Ann 35(5):390-398 as found in the Child Welfare Trauma Training Toolkit