As we approach the serious topic of trauma, particularly in children, it is important that we are careful to define what trauma is. Often the term is used to encompass any difficult experience. Sometimes it is used in humor as when people tease each other about how they impact one another. To avoid any misunderstandings about how trauma should be defined, I will use the definitions and/or examples that are referred to in the Vermont CUPS Handbook.
Trauma is defined as a physical or psychological threat or assault to a child’s physical integrity, sense of self, safety or survival, or to the physical safety of another person significant to the child (p. 170). Children may experience trauma as a result of a number of circumstances, such as:
- Abuse (including sexual, physical, emotional)
- Exposure to domestic violence
- Severe natural disaster such as a flood, fire, earthquake or tornado
- War or other military actions
- Witness to violence in the neighborhood or school setting (including fights, drive-by shootings, and law enforcement actions)
- Personal attack by another person or an animal
- Severe bullying
- Medical procedure, surgery, accident or serious illness
Trauma not only involves the incident or perceived threat but also the physical or psychological consequences of that threat or incident.
According to MedicineNet.com psychiatric trauma involves “an experience that is emotionally painful, distressful, or shocking and which may result in lasting mental and physical effects.
Psychiatric trauma is essentially a normal response to an extreme event. It involves the creation of emotional memories about the distressful event that are stored in structures deep within the brain. In general, it is believed that the more direct the exposure to the traumatic event, the higher the risk for emotional harm.”
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a term that is used prevalently used in our society. Particularly with adults, PTSD describes the long-term effects of trauma.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as defined by Dr. David Baldwin (http://www.trauma-pages.com/) states that PTSD “…is the most common diagnostic category used to describe symptoms arising from emotionally traumatic experience(s). This disorder presumes that the person experienced a traumatic event involving actual or threatened death or injury to themselves or others – and where they felt fear, helplessness or horror.
Three additional symptom clusters, if they persist for more than a month after the traumatic event and cause clinically significant distress or impairment, make up the diagnostic criteria. The three main symptom clusters in PTSD are: Intrusions, such as flashbacks or nightmares, where the traumatic event is re-experienced. Avoidance, when the person tries to reduce exposure to people or things that might bring on their interested symptoms. Hyperarousal, meaning physiologic signs of increased arousal, such as hypervigilance or increased startle response.”
These definitions, terms and impact of trauma will be important to understand as we discuss this vital topic that has impacted all of us in our families and communities. It is my hope that as a result of these posts on trauma we will develop new trauma lenses for those around us who have been impacted by these fearful situations.
Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network
Information taken from Enhancing Trauma Awareness, Diane Wagenhals, 2008. All rights reserved. Licensed materials.