Childhood and Trauma

Trauma describes an event that would be considered unusually distressful to most people. A traumatic event is more overwhelming than events that are normally expected to occur within a lifetime. Most traumatic events are life threatening. When children experience traumatic events, it is important that they obtain therapy to help process the occurrence. Without treatment, the effects of the trauma are likely to last far into their adulthood.

One-episode trauma differs from repeated trauma in the symptoms it engenders. Single-episode trauma results from an unexpected and sudden episode, such as a car crash or a hurricane. Repeated trauma occurs when a child is exposed to ongoing negative events, such as long-standing child abuse or life in a war zone.

The effects of a one-time trauma are diagnosed by psychiatrists as Type 1 Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD Type 1. Children who have experienced a one-time trauma typically retain vivid intrusive memories of the event. The memories appear at any time, seemingly unprovoked, and they interfere with the child's daily life.

PTSD Type 1 usually comprises nightmares and a strong startle response. Children with the diagnosis can be hypervigilant, as if waiting for another trauma to occur. Their attempt to gain control over the event might lead to a fixation on concern as to why it happened to them, and how the event could have been avoided.

The feeling of lacking control can cause children to become depressed and empty. They can grow pessimistic about the future and express nihilistic thoughts. Some children also develop visual hallucinations after a single-event trauma, actually believing that they see threatening objects in their environment.

Children who are exposed to repeated trauma can develop PTSD Type 2 disorder. Chronic trauma is characteristic of life in a violent neighborhood or war zone. Children who are subjected to repeated sexual or physical abuse are also prone to PTSD Type 2.

PTSD Type 2 comprises many of the same symptoms as PTSD Type 1, with the addition of other troubling signs. Children with this disorder usually develop a constant sense of dread, anticipating another traumatic episode. Their feelings tend to be confused and poorly defined. Their moods can quickly switch from fearful, to sad, to angry. Many develop a sense of detachment, an out-of-body sensation, in order to cope with their extreme pain. Emotional numbness is typical of victims of repeated trauma.

Immediately following a trauma, children will usually have a brief period of denial and impassiveness. During this time, they will try to stop thinking about the traumatic experience. As the child tries to adapt to the new reality of the trauma and the associated loss, internal changes are likely to occur. Numbing of feelings is an effort to reduce the pain. Repeatedly thinking about the trauma can represent the child's effort to gain mastery or control over the experience. Dissociation, or psychically distancing oneself from one's environment, can deaden the pain, but can negatively affect a child's development. Developing a belief in signs and omens can help the child regain a sense of control, but will not help resolve ongoing grief.

Repeated abuse often produces anger and rage in children. The rage can be focused outwardly, manifesting in tantrums and violence, or inwardly, displayed as suicidal gestures or self-mutilation. Abuse victims might over-identify with the aggressor, assuming an aggressive and victimizing stance in relationships with other children. At the other end of the range, children who are exposed to repeated abuse might develop a passive posture, exposing themselves to further victimization and abuse.

Trauma irrevocably interferes with children's development. It breaks the senses of trust and invincibility that are implicit in childhood. Trauma can create a multitude of mental disorders, such as conduct disorder, depression, panic disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. As adults, victims of childhood trauma are likely to feel pessimistic, which negatively influences their careers and relationships. Child victims of trauma often develop into adults with violent behavior, substance abuse, self-mutilation and suicidal tendencies.

Families and educators of traumatized children should respond with early intervention. Giving support and understanding directly after the event can limit the effects of the trauma. Individual psychotherapy helps the child accept and move beyond the traumatic incident. Play therapy allows children to reenact the trauma in a safe environment, gaining a feeling of control over the occurrence. It also allows them a safe place to talk about their feelings. The goal is to have the child view the traumatic event as a matter of the past, lacking the ability to control his or her destiny.

In some circumstances, children with PTSD require psychotropic medication to mitigate the strength of their symptoms. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications might be prescribed by a psychiatrist.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Too Scared to Cry: Psychic Trauma in Childhood
Lenore Terr.
Basic Books, 1990
The Psychological Assessment of Abused and Traumatized Children
Francis D. Kelly.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999
The Presence of the Therapist: Treating Childhood Trauma
Monica Lanyado.
Brunner-Routledge, 2004
Handbook of Post-Traumatic Therapy
Mary Beth Williams; John F. Sommer Jr.
Greenwood Press, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "Long-Term Treatment for Children with Severe Trauma History"
Dialogues with Forgotten Voices: Relational Perspectives on Child Abuse Trauma and Treatment of Dissociative Disorders
Harvey L. Schwartz.
Basic Books, 2000
Children and Disasters: A Practical Guide to Healing and Recovery
Wendy N. Zubenko; Joseph Capozzoli.
Oxford University Press, 2002
Separation and Creativity: Refinding the Lost Language of Childhood
Maud Mannoni; Susan Fairfield.
Other Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "Trauma and Creation" and Chap. 2 "The Survivors of Genocide"
Helping Children Live with Death and Loss
Dinah Seibert; Judy C. Drolet; Joyce V. Fetro.
Southern Illinois University Press, 2003
Sibling Loss
Joanna H. Fanos.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1996
The Psychological Effects of War and Violence on Children
Lewis A. Leavitt; Nathan A. Fox.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1993
Treating Psychological Trauma and PTSD
John P. Wilson; Matthew J. Friedman; Jacob D. Lindy.
Guilford Press, 2001
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 12 "Treatment Methods for Childhood Trauma"
Children in a Violent Society
Joy D. Osofsky.
Guilford Press, 1997
Splintered Reflections: Images of the Body in Trauma
Jean Goodwin; Reina Attias.
Basic Books, 1999
Family Stressors: Interventions for Stress and Trauma
Don R. Catherall.
Brunner Routledge, 2005
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "When a Child Is Traumatized of Physically Injured: The Secondary Trauma of Parents"
The Trauma of Terrorism: Helping Children Cope. (Teaching about Tragedy)(Cover Story)
Berson, Ilene R.; Berson, Michael J.
Social Education, Vol. 65, No. 6, October 2001
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