Understanding Childhood Trauma

Trauma is our emotional response to an event that causes significant distress and pain in our lives. Despite being deeply unpleasant, trauma is nevertheless still a part of everyday life. The trauma response is a natural way of responding to these kinds of events, and it helps to think of trauma as something we all experience at some point in time.

It is important to remember though that while the vast majority of us experience some trauma in our lives, for many people the effects can be devastating.

Everybody responds to traumatic experiences in different ways. While there are many what we might call ‘universal’ types of trauma - catastrophic accidents, deaths of close relatives, neglect, violence and assault - the extent that such experiences are traumatic depend on how they impact the individual’s sense of safety.

Am I to Blame if My Child Has Experienced Trauma?

It would be a truly fortunate child to experience an entire childhood free of trauma. Almost all of us go through times of great pain and suffering during our developmental years – it’s just a natural part of life.

I strongly suspect that if you are reading this article, you probably don’t need to blame yourself for the trauma your child might have experienced - clearly, the well-being of your child is important to you, and that is not usually the recipe for intentional trauma.

Your child occupies a complicated world, surrounded by many influences beyond your own. As this TED article put it, “Stop blaming yourself as if you’re in control of your child’s path. You have influence — but you don’t have control”.

What Are the Different Types of Childhood Trauma?

There are several different types of childhood trauma:

  • Acute trauma describes the short-term, intense feelings felt in the aftermath of a traumatic event

  • Chronic trauma describes prolonged, persistent incidences of distressing events, such as bullying, neglect, war, or ongoing abuse

  • Complex trauma describes trauma that arises from repeated events from which the child feels there is no escaping form

  • Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) are traumatic experiences that impact a child’s development, occurring during a time where they’ve acquired effective coping skills

Trauma can also lead to the onset of different trauma-based conditions:

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

When a child exhibits continued symptoms of distress in response to a traumatic event, they may be experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD can be deeply upsetting and have a significant impact on a child/adolescent’s well-being.

Signs a child/adolescent may have PTSD include:

  • Difficulty with sleep

  • Getting upset when memories of the event(s) are relieved

  • Avoiding locations/people who remind them of the event(s)

  • Constantly reliving the event(s) over again

  • Pretending the event(s) never took place

  • Always being on the lookout for danger

Occasionally PTSD can be confused with ADHD, as the two share common symptoms like restlessness and trouble with attention.

Developmental Trauma Disorder (DTD)

Developmental trauma disorder (DTD) is a diagnosis specific to children, with symptoms that impact emotions, thoughts, behavior and relationships. These symptoms vary depending on which developmental period the trauma occurred in. That is, the symptoms will be different for a 2 year old compared to a 9 year old, and different again compared to a 14 year old.

Signs a child/adolescent may have DTD include:

  • Habitual self-harm

  • Emotional dysregulation

  • Extreme distrust

  • Verbal/physical aggression towards others

  • Difficulty maintaining interpersonal relationships

  • Dissociations

What Can I Do to Help My Child if They Have Experienced Trauma?

The best way to help your child to recover from trauma is to listen to and support them. If the impact of your child’s trauma is having a negative effect on their well-being, they should consider consulting with a trained therapist who specializes in trauma-informed care which can take the form of many different types of therapies including body-based therapies.