Traumatic events will happen to everyone at some point in their lives. Trauma is, unfortunately, a very real and very painful part of living. Whether it is caused by abuse, neglect, the untimely death of a loved one, watching something terrible occur, or countless other reasons—these moments wedge themselves deep into the hearts and minds of people. Trauma can cause mental health issues, affect personal relationships, change one’s sense of self-worth, cause behavioral problems, and can sometimes even manifest physically. However, it can also become a catalyst for change and a driving force to make the world a better place. The key is to heal from the trauma so that it doesn’t continue to cause devastation to the lives it affects.
When trauma occurs in early childhood, it is especially difficult. As a caregiver of a child dealing with traumatic experiences, you may feel helpless. There is no way to go back and prevent the trauma from happening, so focusing on the healing process is important. The exact length of time this healing will take can vary depending on the individual child and the level of trauma they have experienced.
What is Early Childhood Trauma?
The term “early childhood trauma” generally refers to trauma that occurs in the first six years of a child’s life. At this young age, a child may not be able to verbalize what they have seen or experienced. They may also have a different reaction than an older child or adult would have. This, however, does not mean that the child hasn’t been affected by the events that have occurred. Traumatic occurrences at this early age can have just as much impact (if not more) than events that occur at an older age.
Types of Trauma and Their Effects
According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, trauma occurs when a child “feels intensely threatened by an event he or she is involved in, or witnesses.” While the following list is not all-inclusive, it does portray a wide variety of trauma types with their descriptions and possible effects. Check out the National Child Traumatic Stress Network to see more about these types of abuse.
– Physical abuse is the most common form of child abuse. This occurs when a parent or caregiver commits an act that leaves a physical injury on the child. Red marks, bruises, broken bones, cuts, and other injuries are some of the telltale signs of physical abuse. Children who have dealt with this type of abuse have been physically hurt by the people who are supposed to protect them. It may be difficult for them to make friends or to trust adults, caregivers, or authority figures. They may have been told that the abuse was their fault, and they may believe it. They may not speak about the abuse outside of the home for fear of further abuse, fear of being removed from the home, or simply because they feel that the abuse was deserved. Sometimes threats and aggressive behavior, even if not coupled with actual acts of physical violence, can cause traumatic effects in children.
If these children are exposed to physical abuse often, they may lose their fight or flight response because dangerous situations become normal to them. When the abuse is unpredictable, the child may become quite anxious because they never know when the next attack is coming. Those who have been physically abused may also become likely to physically abuse others.
– Domestic violence within the home can be more than just physical violence. It can also include sexual, verbal, financial, and emotional abuse. Sometimes is materializes as stalking, manipulation, blaming, and intentionally isolating a domestic partner from their friends, family, or workplace. When a child is exposed to domestic violence between his or her parents/caregivers, it can affect their view of what a relationship should ideally look like. Without a healthy model to consider, it can be difficult to understand how partners are supposed to treat one another.
– Child sexual abuse can include both touching and non-touching behaviors when an adult (or another child) uses a child for sexual stimulation of any kind. Children who have experienced sexual abuse often have nightmares and difficulty sleeping. They may have emotional outbursts or become withdrawn. They may not want to be left alone with their abuser or with others who may exhibit similar characteristics. They may have sexual knowledge that is too advanced for their age and very young children may act out the trauma repeatedly. Childhood sexual abuse can cause lifelong physical and emotional trauma. Post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, self-harm, risky behavior, and difficulty with relationships are a few of the possible long term effects.
– Violence within the community can have lasting effects on a child’s mentality. In many communities, fighting, robberies, and even shootings are commonplace. Living in a high crime area and being frequently exposed to violence can place a child into survival mode. They may feel that they have no control over their environment. They may not know who to trust, what might happen next, or which of their loved ones may be affected. In an attempt to remain safe, some people even feel the need to protect themselves through joining a gang, becoming violent, or carrying a weapon. Drug or alcohol abuse may be more common in these communities. Anger, frustration, hopelessness, and anxiety are common reactions to witnessing traumatic events of violence near the home.
– Pediatric medical traumatic stress is a child’s mental and physical response to serious illness or injury, pain, medical procedures, or medical procedures that are frightening to the child. The child’s perception of the medical trauma plays more of a role than the actual illness or procedure. Following a life-threatening illness or injury, a majority of families experience some level of traumatic stress. For some children, however, these effects are longer lasting and may lead to re-experiencing the situation by replaying it over and over again in their mind. They may avoid any place, situation, or mention of anything that reminds them of the event. Their “fight or flight” response may also become intensified.
– Disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and being exposed to conditions such as extreme heat or cold can cause trauma in children as well. This can be compounded when these disasters lead to displacement, changes in living conditions, financial difficulties, or the injury or death of loved ones.
– Bullying occurs when someone in a perceived position of power intentionally causes physical, social, emotional, or psychological pain to another person. This typically occurs on more than one occasion and can cause children to fear for their safety as well as becoming stressed in the environment where it occurs (school, daycare, the bus, etc.).
While most people equate bullying with physical violence, it has many forms. Verbal bullying can include name-calling, threatening, teasing, and unwanted sexual comments. Social bullying seeks to isolate and demean the person being bullied through the spreading of rumors, excluding them, and publicly embarrassing or shaming them. With the widespread popularity of social media among young people, cyberbullying is also a concern. This may include hurtful online messages, comments, or even the sharing of embarrassing or unwanted photos meant to purposely demean a person.
While childhood bullying may seem harmless to some people—just something kids grow out of—it can have lasting effects on a child’s self-esteem. Their grades may suffer. They may struggle with social interaction. Feelings of depression, anxiety, and isolation may frequently occur. In some cases, children will start skipping school or avoiding social situations at all for fear of being inadequate, left out, or dealing with further bullying. There have been multiple cases of bullying leading to devastating consequences such as eating disorders, self-harm, or even suicidal/homicidal thoughts and actions.
– Traumatic grief can occur when a child’s life is severely disrupted by the loss of a loved one. This can take a toll on their sleeping and eating habits, their school performance, and may cause chronic thoughts or fears of death. They may become concerned about the safety of others and of themselves. They may be reminded of their loved ones by certain places, activities, or other reminders of the person they have lost. Sadness, fear, and anxiety can occur.
– Complex trauma typically occurs at an early age. This involves exposure to multiple traumas and can have profound and long-lasting effects. Abuse and severe neglect can negatively impact a child’s development. The child is often unable to form a healthy sense of who they are, and they may have difficulty forming secure bonds with caregivers, especially if the caregivers are involved in the trauma. When safety, protection, and comfort are not guaranteed, many children will develop coping mechanisms that will best help them to survive. Their words, actions, and thoughts may be driven by a fear of physical or emotional consequence. Because these coping mechanisms are engrained from a young age, they may follow a person throughout their life and cause problems in future relationships. Individuals with complex trauma may not know how to react in future healthy relationships. They may become overly sensitive or withhold their feelings entirely. They may have a difficult time trusting others, regulating their emotions, or understanding their own value. They may become easily overwhelmed and have a difficult time calming down. Or, quite the opposite, they may shut down completely as they learn to numb their emotions.
A child’s relationship with their caregiver is incredibly important. When this relationship is abusive, a child may have a difficult time with attachment to future caregivers or with other relationships in general. If you find yourself raising a child who has complex trauma, you may have a difficult time earning their trust or forming a bond.
Beyond the emotional impact, this type of trauma can manifest itself physically as well. When a young child experiences high levels of stress, their brain and nervous system development can be impacted. If a child has been severely neglected, their brain may not have received the proper stimulation to fully develop. Children with complex trauma may complain of frequent physical ailments such as headaches. Even into adulthood, they can experience chronic illness. They are also more likely to involve themselves in risky behavior.
Resources for Helping Children Heal from Trauma
While trauma is very real and can be very intense, there is hope. Fred Rogers once said, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.”
Sometimes, simply talking about the trauma can be helpful. However, depending on the child and the level of trauma, talking may be difficult. They may feel ashamed, embarrassed, or scared to talk about what happened. They may not know how to verbalize their feelings. They may be experiencing dissociation and may not be able to recall the trauma because they have blocked it out as a coping mechanism. In any case, a child therapist or counselor can be helpful. Do your research on local counselors. Check credentials, get referrals, and read reviews. Meet with them and decide if they are a good match for the child in your care.
Child counselors are trained in helping children with trauma. Through talking, art, play, music, writing, or a variety of other methods, they can help the child to express their feelings about the trauma they have endured. This may happen fairly quickly, or it may take a considerable amount of time. Early intervention is best if at all possible. Many children aren’t offered therapy for their trauma. They learn to cope the best way they know how, whether it’s healthy or not. Some people struggle with relationships and self-worth well into adulthood. Some eventually seek help, and some do not. Beginning the healing process as a child gives an individual more time to heal. They can learn healthy coping strategies and techniques that will help them for years to come. The only way out is through. When someone is able to work through their trauma and take an active role in their own healing, they have a much better chance of leading a healthy lifestyle with healthy relationships. Self-esteem can be rebuilt. Risky behaviors can be avoided. The future can be seen as bright, rather than bleak.
– Your Child’s Pediatrician
If your child has a trusted pediatrician, don’t be afraid to ask for their advice. Doctors are trained to treat all types of issues, not only physical. Speaking openly and honestly to your child’s doctor (perhaps one on one at first so that the child doesn’t feel intimidated) may lead to recommendations that can help with healing. Your child’s pediatrician may have a list of resources or may be able to refer you to professionals who are able to help.
– Your Social Worker
If a social worker is present in your situation, feel free to ask them questions! Chances are, they have dealt with children in similar situations and they may be able to offer you advice or resources as well.
– A Healthy Support System
Remember that it’s important to manage your own stress as well. A healthy support system for yourself is necessary and helpful. There may be groups available in your area for parents and caregivers of children who are dealing with emotional trauma. It can help just to talk to someone who understands. Self-care is vital when you are caring for others. You can’t pour from an empty cup, so make sure that you have resources available for your own well-being. A counselor, friends and family, and support groups are nice to have on your side.
Because a caregiver is so incredibly influential to a child, don’t underestimate your ability to help. While you may not be a professional, you can be a loving and understanding adult who listens without judging and remains present even through the difficult times. If you can show that even their most difficult moments don’t scare you away, that’s a pretty big deal. Remind them that you are available to talk, and more importantly, listen with an open mind and an open heart. Be patient, be kind, and be committed to helping this child become the best version of themselves that they can be.
From Trauma to Triumph
Stop for a moment and think about the most difficult moments of your own life. How have you coped with them? What have you learned from them? I have heard it said that we do not grow very much during times of happiness. That we grow the most during times of adversity. Our challenges make us strong. We do learn how to survive. Our healing may be messy, but if we are proactive, it does eventually come.
Trauma doesn’t always lead to a life of devastation. In fact, it can lead to quite the opposite! Many people have used their worst moments to begin their best lives. Our pain gives us purpose. How can you use what you have gone through to help others? Some people use their experience to help others navigate difficult waters. Some people choose their career path based upon an event that deeply impacted them. For example, becoming a counselor; a public speaker; working with those battling addiction; working with those facing unplanned pregnancies; creating a ministry to help the hungry, homeless, or abused.
Throughout history, people have used adversity as a catalyst to enact change. Without the trauma they endured, the laws, the views, and the world may not have moved forward in quite the same way. Trauma is scary. It’s stressful. There are days it seems like it might consume you (or them). With perseverance, faith, and actively working toward healing, it doesn’t stand a chance.
When you look at your child, see more than the trauma they have endured. See their strength. See their positive qualities. See their ability to survive and to be the amazing person they are. We cannot aspire to change the past, however, we can aspire to live our best lives in the present, and to continue healing. And who knows? The trauma your child is painstakingly navigating may just be the story that helps them to save someone’s life.
There is No Easy Answer…
So you’ve read through this entire article. We’ve discussed trauma, we’ve discussed resources. We’ve discussed positive outcomes. But we still haven’t answered the question. HOW LONG will it take for my child to overcome early-life trauma? The truth is, there is no easy answer. They may overcome it relatively quickly. They may struggle with it for the rest of their life. They may move back and forth between having good days and bad days. Trauma can rear its ugly head at various moments throughout life. Certain triggers may catch them off guard. What’s important is that when they are reminded of their trauma—that they are able to cope in a healthy and effective way. By seeking help sooner rather than later, you are setting them up for a brighter future. For help finding resources in your specific area, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment. I would be glad to link you to someone who may be able to help.
Leslie Bolin is a happily married mama of 3 amazing kids. She is also the birth mother to an adult son. She is just beginning the reunion process, which makes her nervous and excited at the same time. Leslie enjoys educating others about adoption and has done her fair share of outreach, writing, and public speaking on the subject. She has an Associate of Arts degree in Social Work and plans to continue her education. Leslie enjoys spending time with her family, finding peace in the beauty of nature, and laughing as much as possible. She believes that smiling is contagious and that music is good for the soul. She is a firm believer that even the most difficult moments can be turned into something beautiful when we use our stories to help others.