It can be difficult to determine if childhood behaviors are associated with early childhood trauma or if they are something altogether different.
Many children have some behavioral issues at some point in their childhood. Many toddlers tantrum, many children tell lies, and many children are defiant toward their parents on occasion.
The question is: When do these behaviors become signs of early childhood trauma and not just normal behavior struggles?
It can be particularly hard to know when behaviors cross that line when you aren’t fully aware of all of the child’s past experiences. If you are a foster or adoptive parent, you may not know about a child’s background or experiences prior to being with you. Or, you may have some insights into their trauma based on reports and incidents that lead to the child being placed in your care. While you may have some information, it is likely just the tip of the iceberg.
When Should We Worry?
While we can all agree that some tantrum behavior in young children is common and nothing to worry about, at what point should the worrying begin?
Does your child tantrum for long periods of time? Do they tantrum in a violent way, leading to injury of themselves, others, or damage to property? Is your child having tantrum behavior well past the toddler years? If so, this may indicate early childhood trauma.
Issues surrounding food, and eating can also be signs of early childhood trauma. Does the child get visibly upset if food is all gone? Do they eat multiple plates of food and portions that are much too large for a child to comfortably consume? Do they hoard food, and hide it for later? Do they sneak food to eat without permission? Do they become irrational if they get hungry? Do they watch the clock and insist on eating at designated “mealtimes” without fail? Even when they may have just eaten recently, off schedule, they insist they are starving because the clock says it is mealtime. If any of these food-related issues sound familiar, the child may be showing signs of early childhood trauma. It could be possible that food was not provided to them in the past, and their trauma is triggered when it comes to hunger and eating. This can be true even if a child doesn’t recall the trauma or remember being hungry. The body remembers the trauma and triggers the reactions to food.
What’s the Impact of Early Childhood Trauma?
Early childhood trauma can also impact social situations and relationships. Children who have experienced trauma may have issues trusting and bonding. Or, on the flip side, they may not have any healthy boundaries when it comes to strangers. Some children may be unable to understand social cues or maintain proper eye contact or personal space. Some may find it difficult to play with their peers or may act immature for their age. Some children may lash out aggressively when they feel uncomfortable socially. They may have a hard time identifying or articulating how they feel. Some kids with early trauma may be clingy to caregivers and have separation anxiety. Others may be indifferent to caregivers, with no healthy bond forming between them.
Some children who have experienced trauma exhibit behaviors that are similar to ADHD. They may have trouble staying focused on a task, they may have trouble sitting still, or they may fidget constantly. They may behave in a way that seems extremely impulsive or reckless. Sometimes these children are diagnosed and treated for ADHD, and the medications do not work or make behaviors even worse. Be sure to inform your doctor if a child in your care is exhibiting symptoms that seem to align with ADHD, but they have traumatic backgrounds. It is possible to have both ADHD and early childhood trauma. One does not rule out the other. However, this is a common misdiagnosis.
Others may exhibit behavior that is withdrawn, and where they are unengaged. They may not like to interact, or they may be shy and quiet. They may keep their eyes cast downward and not make a lot of eye contact. These kids may seem sad or depressed, and they may be. They may be children who are filled with anxieties and fears. They may be afraid to try new things, or afraid to leave their comfort zone. They may prefer to do things alone rather than with others.
What Are Other Effects of Early Childhood Trauma?
Many children who experience early childhood trauma will have some learning delays or regression. This doesn’t mean that every child with delays in learning has experienced trauma. It is common to see those who have experienced trauma also experience some learning delays though. Speech delays are a very common sign of early trauma. Delays in motor skills, both fine and gross motor, could be a sign of early trauma. On the other hand, a child may have advanced gross motor skills, from doing things on their own at a young age. It can be hard to identify when a child has delays or advances that are caused by early childhood trauma.
Many children who experience early childhood trauma have poor impulse control, and they often have delays in cause and effect thinking. While a child may know that doing something is dangerous when you talk to them, they may impulsively behave in these ways anyway. For example, a child with impulse issues may run through a busy parking lot to the car. When you speak with the child afterward, they can tell you why doing so was a bad idea (they could be hit by a car), but they will have a hard time not acting out impulsively in the moment. While they understand that running in the parking lot can be dangerous and can result in injury, they aren’t connecting all those dots in the moment.
Some children who have experienced trauma will have chronic illness when faced with situations that trigger them. They may complain of headaches, stomach aches, or difficulty sleeping. While it can be hard to believe a child who often complains of these things with little evidence that an illness is present, they may, in fact, feel physically sick with anxiety. Severe anxiety can cause physical symptoms. Children who have experienced trauma often have some anxiety or depression.
Do Children With Early Childhood Trauma Lie?
Lying is another common issue in children who have experienced trauma. All kids will lie on occasion. This doesn’t indicate trauma on its own. However, a child who has experienced trauma may lie in excess. Some lies will not even make sense, and they know it, but they will stick with it. I can recall a child who threw a ball in my living room. Nothing was broken, but I was going to give the reminder that balls are outdoor toys. This child looked me right in the face and insisted he did not throw the ball. He was the only child in the room when it happened. He insisted our oldest child had done it. This lie was obvious because the older child was not even home during this incident. This child stuck with the lie, even after being told he wasn’t in trouble, that he just needed to remember to follow the rules for inside play. He could look me right in the eyes, and tell me he didn’t do it.
These kids with trauma backgrounds can lie about trivial or much more important things. They are very convincing, and it can be hard to know when the truth is being told. As these kids grow, they sometimes make false allegations against parents or caregivers without understanding the potential consequences of their actions. Again, cause and effect thinking is not always understood, and they do not connect the possibilities such accusations could result in.
For example, a child that wanted a ham sandwich in their lunch may find a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead. They may become so irrationally angry that they didn’t get what they wanted that they may insist they weren’t given a lunch when they get to school that day. They may tell a dramatic story of an argument that resulted in a caregiver refusing to make them lunch that day. They will sound convincing and likely have many details. Even though the lunch is in their backpack the whole time, school officials now believe that you punished the child by withholding food. The child may not realize that social services can become involved in this situation.
What Problems Might Children with Early Childhood Trauma Develop?
If a child has experienced trauma that is sexual in nature, they may act out that trauma with others. It is not uncommon for sexually abused children to act out their abuse on other children, creating more victims and becoming the perpetrator. This is an example of how cyclical abuse can be, and how victims sometimes become perpetrators themselves. If you see a young child acting out sexually, or hear them speak about things in a sexual way, be sure to alert someone. While discovery of one’s body is a normal event, if the behavior involves acting out around others, or involves knowledge of mature matters, the child may have been abused and may need additional help.
Some children who experience trauma develop Oppositional Defiance Disorder, Reactive Attachment Disorder, or a number of other mood disorders. When a child has these types of disorders, it can affect the entire family. Finding help to deal with these issues can be difficult and expensive.
The signs of trauma can be extreme to one side or the other. A child may be more solitary, quiet, reserved, and anxious. They may be eager to please and want to draw little attention to themselves. Or, they could be loud, violent, and full of tantrums and defiance. They may thrive on negative attention and enjoy anything that makes them the center of attention. They may be overthinkers or impulsive. There is no one-size-fits-all for behavior that is based on childhood trauma. It is instead a wide variety of behaviors that can seem quite normal until you realize they are excessive and no longer age appropriate.
Oftentimes, childhood trauma is difficult to identify, and it can take years to realize that the cause of behavior issues is rooted in early trauma. As a parent or caregiver, you may feel like you are going a bit crazy because children sometimes behave differently with others than they do with you. This is not uncommon in children who have experienced trauma.
How Can We Help Kids with Early Childhood Trauma?
Because trauma-based behavior can seem normal in the early years and can be overlooked until a child becomes a bit older, it can be difficult to find the proper treatments. Finding a therapist that deals specifically with early childhood trauma is important, though hard to find in some areas. Whenever possible, it is best to find a therapist who is trained in dealing with children who have these issues.
It is important that your pediatrician is also aware of any early childhood trauma that you know your child experienced. If a child is complaining about physical symptoms without any evidence of a problem (headaches without fever, stomach aches without vomiting, etc.), they can consider anxiety or depression as the cause of the illness. They may refer you to a mental health doctor to treat these symptoms.
Most children who are in foster care will have suffered some trauma. Even if their parents did not neglect or abuse them, the trauma of being removed from their care is an experience that can cause behavior troubles or mental health issues. Even if the child is very young at the time of removal, the removal from their parents is traumatic and can cause some lasting effects. It is important not to dismiss trauma based on a young age. It is also important to know that you cannot “love away” the trauma a child has endured. The child must learn proper coping skills and a healthy way to deal with their feelings.
In order to properly help, you must be able to identify when behavior is traditional, normal childhood behavior, and when it is excessive, extreme trauma-based behavior. This is a big challenge to parents and caregivers. Nobody wants to believe that a child they love has been traumatized. It is easier to believe that things are fine, and they will outgrow the behavior that is causing you concern. Seeking help is nothing to be ashamed of, and it is the best thing you can do for a struggling child. If you have concerns, speak with a doctor.
Jennifer is a mother to 3 children (one biological, two adopted). She is also a mom to numerous pets. She enjoys volunteering in her children’s classroom, reading, and crafting in her spare time. She has been married for almost 15 years.