When we hear the word trauma, we often think of adults. But the truth is that trauma can happen at any age, meaning that kids are also vulnerable. In fact, childhood trauma is a problem worldwide, including high-income countries. Research shows that it contributes to dysfunctional attitudes, depression, and anxiety. Identifying the presence of trauma in a child’s life can be difficult, but this article can help bring clarity in what to do to help if childhood trauma is present.
Understanding Childhood Trauma
Before getting into the signs of trauma, it’s important to know which situations cause it. Childhood trauma is when a child is exposed to difficult events, such as:
- Domestic violence – Witnessing domestic violence in which a parent is being abused. Children can also be the victims of the abuse themselves.
- Losing a loved one – This is especially true if the death was sudden (e.g., a parent getting into an accident).
- Racism and bullying – Jokes or comments that focus on a child’s race, color, religion, and background can make them feel inferior.
- Terrorism – Some children who witness shootings, bombings, and other forms of violence may struggle to cope.
- Emotional and sexual abuse – This includes constant criticism, rejecting a child, making them feel unloved, and using them for sexual stimulation.
Look Out for These Signs of Trauma in Children
Younger children are not always able to express how they feel verbally. As such, parents and caregivers should not rely solely on their child’s communication. Instead, you’ll also want to pay attention to their behaviors. You might discover changes in their actions, which can sometimes occur slowly or be “unnoticable” at first glance.
Reacting to trauma triggers
Trauma triggers refer to anything that takes them back to the traumatic event. Certain sights, sounds, smells, and sensations can remind a trauma victim of what they’ve been through — for example, a red shirt that resembles the one that their abuser wore. A trauma victim exhibits traumatic stress reactions, such as physical symptoms, anger, and shame.
Caregivers of children can use trauma worksheets that help them explore these triggers. These worksheets will also encourage them to practice coping strategies, such as relaxation and mindful distraction when faced with these triggers.
Refusing to go to school
Most kids are eager to return to school, but kids who have struggled with trauma are likely to show refusal. Note that school refusal is not a DSM–5 diagnosis, but rather, a symptom associated with other problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression etc. Watch out for increased fearfulness, crying episodes, and tantrums as they prepare for school in the morning, as it might be an indication of something more.
Changes in their eating behavior
Physical and emotional abuse is linked with eating disorders. Kids can turn to stress eating (they overeat) or refuse to eat (undereat). Not only are these a sign of childhood trauma, but over time, they may result in health problems, such as obesity, malnutrition, and eating disorders.
Since a traumatized child experiences increased alertness, they’re prone to insomnia. This makes it hard for them to fall asleep at night. If your child is able to sleep, they may have dreams or nightmares about the distressing event. Implementing sleep hygiene practices, such as a relaxing bedtime routine, using sleep essential oils and sprays, and lowering room temperatures, can make a huge difference in solving their sleep issues.
Being fearful all the time
It’s normal for kids to have certain fears — the dark, going to the doctor, and imaginary monsters. However, caregivers have a good reason to worry if a child’s fears are intense, especially if they’re so extreme that they interfere with their ability to enjoy life.
Children with a history of childhood trauma may find it hard to control their anger and express their anger appropriately when they feel it. An example would be an 11-year-old throwing temper tantrums similar to what you would expect from a toddler. Ie: screaming, holding their breath, and kicking.
Delays in their language
Younger children who face multiple traumas are more susceptible to delayed speech or language. Speech problems may also be caused by poor parent interaction. Addressing these delays is possible with the help of a speech pathologist.
Struggling to connect with others
Trauma negatively affects a person’s ability to seek out and connect with those around them. Kids who experience loneliness may also have feelings of not being good enough. Try to encourage your child to get involved in activities, whether it’s at school, your local community center, at the park, etc.
Interestingly, a study suggested that child experiencing traumatic events often present symptoms associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), such as inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness. Such symptoms can sometimes be thought of as attention-seeking behaviors or “bad behaviour”, but keep in mind that these may very well be a response to trauma.
Is your child worrying a lot when they’re not with you? Or are they afraid of being left alone? These are signs of separation anxiety, including clinginess even at home. Separation anxiety normally happens in toddlers, but is not common in kids over the age of 6.
Helping a Child Heal from Trauma
Successfully overcoming trauma involves getting expert help. It’s best for parents and caregivers to find someone who handles trauma cases or a therapist providing Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT). Additionally, help a child cope by encouraging them to share their feelings without forcing them. Establish a normal and healthy routine, which includes nutritious meals, exercise, family time, personal hygiene, and adequate rest.
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