Treating the Effects of Childhood Trauma

traumatized child with head covered
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Although adults often say things like, “He was so young when that happened. He won’t even remember it as an adult,” childhood trauma can have a lifelong effect. And while kids are resilient, they’re not made of stone.

That’s not to say your child will be emotionally scarred for life if he endures a horrific experience. But it’s important to recognize when your child may need professional help with dealing with trauma. Early intervention may even prevent your child from experiencing the ongoing effects of the trauma as an adult.

What Is Childhood Trauma?

There are many different experiences that can constitute trauma. Childhood trauma is an event experienced by a child that threatens their life or bodily integrity. Physical or sexual abuse, for example, can be clearly traumatic for children. One-time events like a car accident, natural disaster (like a hurricane), or medical trauma can take a psychological toll on children as well.

Ongoing stress, such as living in a dangerous neighborhood or being the victim of bullying, can be traumatic, even if it just feels like daily life to an adult.

Childhood trauma also doesn’t have to occur directly to the child. For instance, watching a loved one suffer can be extremely traumatic as well. Exposure to violent media can also traumatize children.

Just because an experience is upsetting, however, doesn’t make it traumatic. Parental divorce, for example, will likely affect a child but it isn’t necessarily traumatizing.

Childhood Trauma and PTSD

Many children are exposed to traumatic events at one point or another. While most of them experience distress following a traumatic event, the vast majority of them return to a normal state of functioning in a relatively short period of time. Some kids are much less affected by their circumstances than others.

Between 3% and 15% of girls and 1% to 6% of boys—develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following a traumatic event.

Children with PTSD may re-experience the trauma in their minds over and over again. They may also avoid anything that reminds them of the trauma or they may re-enact their trauma in their play.

Sometimes children believe they missed warning signs predicting the traumatic event. In an effort to prevent future traumas, they become hyper-vigilant in looking for warning signs that something bad is going to happen again.

Children with PTSD may also have problems with:

  • Anger and aggression
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Difficulty trusting others
  • Fear
  • Feelings of isolation
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Self-destructive behavior

Even children who don’t develop PTSD may still exhibit emotional and behavioral issues following a traumatic experience. Here are some things to watch out for during the weeks and months after an upsetting event:

  • Anger issues
  • Attention problems
  • Changes in appetite
  • Development of new fears
  • Increased thoughts about death or safety
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest in normal activities
  • Problems sleeping
  • Sadness
  • School refusal
  • Somatic complaints like headaches and stomachaches

Long-Term Health Consequences

Traumatic events can affect how a child’s brain develops. And that can have lifelong consequences.

A study published in 2015 showed that the more adverse childhood experiences a person has, the higher their risk of health and wellness problems later in life. Childhood trauma may increase an individual’s risk of:

  • Asthma
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Stroke

A study published in 2016 in Psychiatric Times noted that the prevalence of suicide attempts was significantly higher in adults who experienced trauma, such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, and parental domestic violence, as a child.

Attachment and Relationships

A child’s relationship with his caregiver—whether his parents, grandparents, or otherwise—is vital to his emotional and physical health. This relationship and attachment helps the little one learn to trust others, manage emotions, and interact with the world around them.

When a child experiences a trauma that teaches him that he cannot trust or rely on that caregiver, however, he’s likely to believe that the world around him is a scary place and all adults are dangerous—and that makes it incredibly difficult to form relationships throughout their childhood, including with peers their own age, and into the adult years.

Children who struggle to maintain healthy attachments to caregivers are likely to struggle with romantic relationships during adulthood. A 2008 Australian study of more than 21,000 child abuse survivors age 60 and older reported a higher rate of failed marriages and relationships.

How to Help

Family support can be key to reducing the impact trauma has on a child. Here are some ways to support a child after an upsetting event:

  • Encourage your child to talk about his feelings and validate his emotions.
  • Answer questions honestly.
  • Reassure your child that you’ll do everything you can to keep him safe.
  • Stick to your daily routine as much as possible.

If you or a loved one are struggling with childhood trauma, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Depending on your child’s age and needs, she may be referred for services such as cognitive behavioral therapy, play therapy, or family therapy. Medication may also be an option to treat your child’s symptoms.

A Word From Verywell

It’s never too late to get help. Whether you’ve adopted a teenager who was abused over a decade ago, or you’ve never received help for the traumatic experiences you endured 40 years ago, treatment can still be effective.

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