As we continue to discuss the impact of trauma on children, we need to recognize that there are two types of traumatic impact. A traumatized child doesn’t necessarily suffer a long-term impact. It is possible that a child could experience a traumatic event, receive help and recover. However, other children can and do suffer lasting effects from trauma; they will display behaviors that indicate continued struggle.
Effects of posttraumatic stress in children
According to The Vermont Human Services Report “The Effects of Psychological Trauma on Children and Adolescence” [June 30, 2005]:
“Posttraumatic stress is traumatic stress that persists after a traumatic incident has ended and continues to affect a child’s capacity to function. If posttraumatic stress continues and the child’s neurophysiologic responses remain chronically aroused, even though the threat has ended and the child has survived, then the term posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is used to describe the child’s enduring symptoms.
The report further states: “…Because trauma affects the child’s ability to self-regulate, both physically and emotionally, posttraumatic symptoms in infants and young children may encompass one or more of a broad range of behaviors, including the following:
- Difficulty sleeping, eating, digesting, eliminating, breathing or focusing
- A heightened startle response and hyper-alertness
- Agitation and over-arousal, or under-arousal, withdrawal or dissociation
- Avoidance of eye contact and/or physical contact
- Terrified responses to sights, sounds or other sensory input that remind the child of the traumatic experience(s), (for example: a dog, police siren or the smell of alcohol on a person’s breath)
- Preoccupation with or reenactment of the traumatic experience (for example: a child’s play may take on an urgent, rigid quality and be dominated by people shooting each other with police cars and ambulances arriving at the scene).
Psychological trauma may occur during a single traumatic event (acute) or as a result of repeated (chronic) exposure to overwhelming stress (Terr, 1992). Children exposed to chronic trauma generally have significantly worse outcomes than those exposed to acute accidental traumas. In addition, the failure of caregivers to sufficiently protect a child may be experienced as betrayal and further contribute to the adversity of the experience and effects of trauma.”
Continued display of PTSD behaviors are a signal for help
So, when we are aware of children who continue to display the behaviors described in the research described above, our trauma antenna needs to go up. It is a signal that we should gently begin to communicate to parents and family members that this child may need professional help. With the assistance of a trauma professional, the child can be guided through steps to process the trauma. With this help, he/she will gain the ability and empowerment toward healing.
Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network
Information taken from Enhancing Trauma Awareness, Diane Wagenhals, 2008. All rights reserved. Licensed materials.