Childhood trauma leaves impact far past childhood
December 19, 2018
No life is free of woe. According to a new survey on adverse childhood conducted by the National Survey of Children’s Health, nearly 35 million children in the United States have experienced one or more types of childhood trauma. Furthermore, nearly a third of U.S. youth age 12-17 have experienced two or more types of childhood adversity that are likely to affect their physical and mental health as adults. Across the 50 U.S. states, the percentages range from 23 percent for New Jersey to 44.4 percent for Arizona.
According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, there are multiple forms of trauma that are caused for a variety of reasons: bullying, community violence, complex trauma, disasters, domestic violence, early childhood trauma, medical abuse…etc. Rates of youths’ exposure to disasters lower than for other traumatic events, but when disaster strike, large proportions of young people are affected, with rates varying by region and type of disaster. The American Psychological Association states that 7.9 million U.S children received emergency medical care for unintentional and more than 400,000 for injuries sustained due to violence in 2008.
Learning how to understand, process and cope with difficulties – even tragedies – is a natural part of a child’s development process. But sometimes children get stuck. An experience or repeated experiences may leave a child with an overwhelming sense of fear and loss, making them feel that they have no safety or control over their lives. For some children, these feelings become so intense that they get in the way of their continued physical, emotional, social or intellectual development.
Most people recognize that trauma is a negative experience that an individual cannot forget or move past. For example, everyone knows that a child who has been abused and neglected or has seen something horrific would most likely be traumatized. But could a 5-month-old baby who has been severely neglected be traumatized?
According to Upper School Counselor Susanna Short, “The definition of trauma is any situation where a child feels powerless and a core part of who they are has been threatened. When a child feels helpless, powerless, and a critical part of who they are has been threatened, the [individual’s] brain comes up with many complicated ways to help deal with it.”
Noam Shpancer Ph.D. published a post at the Psychology Today blog where he states that trauma is a complex phenomenon that is intermixed with biology, genes, environmental influence, and physiology. The chemicals in the brain and body work together during traumatizing circumstances to create real and lasting changes in the body. While the trauma can certainly leave a lasting impact, it all depends on how the situation is dealt with in the moment of trauma. Did the child have a support system? Did the child process the trauma in therapy? Did the child know they mattered? Were they loved and cared for? All these factors can help predict whether trauma is going to make functioning in daily life near impossible or doable.
“If a child experiences something traumatic but is able to tell an adult that hears them, sees them, and acknowledges the situation and gets them help… then there could honestly be minimal impact on that child as an adult,” Short said. “That person will look back on that event as a traumatic, but what gets put into the brain is ‘I was hurt, but I was also seen, loved, nurtured and cared for.’”
In sophomore year, students are required to take Wellness class for one quarter. In that time, they learned about coping strategies and the importance of self-care. While the purpose of Wellness is teaching all students basic strategies for dealing with mental health issues, those lessons learned in wellness also apply to childhood traumas.
“Whenever there is something to do with mental health, I would like to reiterate all these messages about self-care: exercise, sleep, diet, and healthy relationships. Approaches to mental health always include three things: considering therapy, considering medication, and self-care,” Short said.
But if a child is not able to tell and deal with the trauma, Short said, that’s where it gets complicated.
“Where it gets dysfunctional is when a child is left to manage on their own…Childhood brains will often compartmentalize. They will put that experience kind of off to the side where they won’t readily access it. They will also develop defense mechanisms against feeling the emotion of the trauma. The problem is that after they grow up sometimes they have defense mechanisms that were adaptive at the time of trauma, but are maladaptive now…The defense mechanism shows themselves in a couple different ways: lack of trust or lack of boundaries,” she said.
Paths to healing are different for the individuals who experience trauma. There is no timeline for healing or magic potion that makes everything better. No matter what, trauma has a physiological and emotional effect on body and brain development. Trauma can have a sensory impact on children, according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. A child can hear, see, feel, or even smell things that can trigger fear, anxiety, and uncertainty. As a result, a trauma response can occur in children as young as 5 months. If the trauma is repeated and intense, the traumatic response can be compounded.
Some studies show that younger children can be more resilient than others at bouncing back from trauma. It all depends on the child. There are, of course, many factors that influence an individual’s resilience such as family support, environment, education, most importantly access to therapy.
“Trauma does not have to affect a person’s life forever if they receive the appropriate therapeutic services and have a good number of protective factors to support them. Regardless of what kind of childhood trauma a person has experienced, healing is always possible,” Short said.
A student who has experienced trauma and shares that information with the school, according to Short, may qualify for accommodations during the time of healing and recovery, like extended time and shortened assignments.
“Trauma is always a case where a student needs outside resources. We [the school] would make a referral to a therapist and, if the family comfortable, have a release of information. That way I can talk to the therapist about ways to support the student at school…The goal is to help the student become fully re-integrated into their life,” Short said.