People are immensely resilient in the face of stress, and children are no different. Actually, some stress is good stress – like when a little one learns a new game or goes to school for the first time – and it helps children grow and develop in amazing new ways.
Traumatic stress, however, is a response what occurs when babies or children are exposed to situations that threaten or cause harm. Harm can be emotional, physical, real, or perceived – which can trigger a “fight, flight, or freeze” response. This causes changes in the body (like elevated heart rate and blood pressure) and brain (like the way one perceives and responds to threats in the world). Often, there is quick recovery from this, but other times the effects of trauma are long-lasting, and it can impact a child’s development and trauma interferes with normal development and overwhelm a child’s ability to cope and function in everyday situations.
Trauma can vary widely, and could include experiencing domestic violence, physical and sexual abuse, bullying, seeing a loved one harmed, accidents or natural disasters, neglect, or having a birth parent or family member act unpredictably due to mental illness or addiction. Adopted children can also experience trauma by being placed into the child welfare system by virtue of being separated from their home and birth family or when they experience any additional foster care placements.
What are the effects of trauma?
The effects of trauma can manifest in a number of ways for children, and issues can range from physical, to cognitive, to emotional, to behavioral.
- Physical issues can include chronic illnesses that can last into adulthood, to a child’s inability to control their response to stress.
- Cognitive (thinking) issues can include impaired memory and difficulty learning and concentrating.
- Emotional (feeling) issues can include a child having trouble regulating emotions, difficulty trusting or forming attachments, difficulty feeling safe, depression and anxiety, and low self-esteem.
- Behavioral issues can include trouble with impulse control and fighting or aggression.
What other factors play a role?
There are a lot of factors that can affect how trauma manifests. The age of the child when exposed to the trauma can make a difference, as younger children are quite vulnerable and can retain what are called “sense memories” even if they are too young to talk about the trauma. Frequency of traumatic events also makes a difference, as experiencing multiple traumatic events can be more harmful. How much danger they perceive themselves to be in plays a role too. Positive influences present in a child’s life also make a difference, as children with healthy relationships and healthy coping skills are aided by these factors and are more likely to recover.
Does trauma manifest differently in children of different ages?
Trauma can also present itself differently in babies and children of different ages.
- For very young children under age 5, signs of trauma can range from milestone delays, irritability, startling easily, tantrums, clinginess, activity levels that are noticeably higher or lower compared to their peers, being difficult to calm, and repeating the traumatic events they’ve experienced either in conversation or play.
- For school-age children, between the ages of 6 and 12, signs can include frequent headaches or stomach aches, frequent crying or sadness, frequent talk about feeling frightened or scary things, exhibiting behaviors that are more common in younger children (like being afraid of the dark, wetting the bed, or thumb sucking), being withdrawn or quiet, trouble paying attention, trouble with transitions, fighting, wanting to be alone, eating too much or too little, and changes in performance at school.
- For teens, ages 13 to 18, signs of trauma can manifest as being tired all the time, sleeping too much or too little, frequent fighting, frequent talking back, refusing to follow rules, either denying trauma or talking about it often, not wanting to be with friends, risky behavior, drug or alcohol use, running away, getting in trouble.
When children behave in these ways, it’s important to remember that they are doing so because it’s a way of protecting themselves, and the behaviors that kick in are much like a survival instinct. If the child were really exposed to a dangerous situation, these behaviors might help them – and the behaviors may have, indeed, helped and protected them in their life previously in response to bad things happening. But over time, these behaviors can become both habits and reflexes, so that even when a child is no longer in a dangerous situation, they just might not recognize that there’s no longer danger present and continue to act in ways that, now, seem to be out of proportion for what’s going on in their new safe environment.
Why is it important for trauma to be treated?
These signs of trauma range from what might sound normal for a child of that age – babies being “fussy,” children talking about scary stuff, teens talking back – to issues of immense concern. But all trauma is of concern and needs to be treated. The good news is that healthcare providers and mental health specialists know more than ever about trauma and how children suffering from trauma can be helped with the proper help.
With loving, caring, supportive adults in their lives, children can recover from trauma, which might mean that the negative effects of trauma are eliminated or reduced. Consistent, patient support and care is integral.
And many children may need treatment that goes beyond just having loving adults in their lives. This might take the form of therapy or counseling with a mental health specialist or even medication.
It’s also worth noting that particularly severe trauma symptoms can overlap with mental health diagnoses, like PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder), ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), depression, anxiety, ODD (oppositional defiant disorder), IED (intermittent explosive disorder), or specific developmental delays. While these diagnoses should be treated, addressing underlying trauma is still necessary too, and this is of the most benefit to the child in the long term.
All of this, of course, can’t turn things around overnight. It will take time for a child’s brain and body to learn to respond to the world around them in ways that are appropriate.
What can you do to help?
If you adopt a child who has experienced trauma, there’s a great deal you can do to help them on a path toward healing.
- Lead with love, kindness, and patience: Again, healing doesn’t happen overnight. Even when your child behaves in ways that you find particularly challenging, always give them a lot of love and be generous with your praise. Be patient, be kind, and when things get tough, don’t take anything personally. Make sure that you also celebrate small successes along the way – the road to recovery will be full of them.
- Listen and reassure: Don’t force conversations, but do what you can to let your child know they can always talk to you about what they’re thinking and feeling – even if some of what they want to talk about is uncomfortable. It’s important that you take their concerns seriously, reassure them that they are not at fault for any trauma that occurred, and correct any misinformation they share.
- Be open and available: Traumatized children might avoid adults or keep them at a distance as a coping mechanism, but you should make yourself available to your child in a way that works for them – with particularly young children this might mean extra snuggles, while for older children it might mean extra quality time together. Remember that children who desire this sort of attention aren’t being needy.
- Be consistent: From playing a favorite game once a week to going to bed at the same time every night, developing a routine and regular rituals for your family can help your child feel secure and like they know what to expect and will also help prepare them to better handle change and new experiences.
- Remain calm: When a child is very upset, it can be hard to keep cool, but reactions from you can be additionally triggering for your child. So acknowledge how your child is feeling, don’t raise your voice, and don’t engage in physical punishment. Expectations for behavior should be consistent, reasonable, and include a focus on praising your child for good behavior.
- Identify and avoid trauma triggers: Seemingly harmless things or happenings in your child’s new safe environment may, nonetheless, be triggering for them. So try to say attention to your child’s behavior and note what seems to be making them react in a way that seems out of proportion to the situation. Once these triggers are identified, help your child avoid them until greater healing has transpired.
- Encourage relaxation, positive experiences, and strong self-esteem: All of these things – from deep breathing to positive affirmations – will help on the path to recovery.
- Seek expert treatment: If you seek out professional help – and you should if your child’s symptoms last more than a few weeks or get worse and not better – make sure you work with a mental health professional who has been trained to treat children with trauma, as this should be a major focus of your child’s care.
- Take care of yourself too: No parent wants to see their child suffer or struggle, and caring for a child who has experienced trauma can be challenging, isolating, and might even be triggering for you if you’ve experienced trauma yourself. So take time to care for yourself, do things you enjoy, and seek treatment for your own trauma if necessary. And reach out to loved ones, support groups, and professionals for advice and support.
Remember, healing is possible
Again, recovery from trauma takes time. But children are resilient, and healing is possible. With your help, love, and support, your child can not just recover but thrive.
- “Helping foster and adoptive families cope with trauma.” American Academy of Pediatrics. American Academy of Pediatrics and Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, 2015. Retrieved September 14 2018. https://www.aap.org/en-us/advocacy-and-policy/aap-health-initiatives/healthy-foster-care-america/Documents/Guide.pdf.
- “Parenting a child who has experienced trauma.” Child Welfare Information Gateway. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families Administration on Children, Youth and Families Children’s Bureau, November 2014. Retrieved September 14 2018. https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/child-trauma.pdf.
- “Preparing and supporting foster parents who adopt.” Child Welfare Information Gateway. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families Administration on Children, Youth and Families Children’s Bureau, January 2013. Retrieved September 14 2018. https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/f_fospro.pdf.