What is Trauma?
When we hear the word trauma we may immediately think of a physical injury such as a broken bone or concussion. However, in the world of psychology, a trauma is any event that exceeds the brain’s ability to cope. Many parents wonder what constitutes a trauma and how to know if their child has been traumatized. We often think that for something to be traumatic, it must be severe or ongoing. The truth is that different events can be traumatic for different children. Some children are traumatized by the death of a pet or a minor car accident but others can easily process these events in their brains. Other children may be traumatized by sudden change, such as their parents separating or switching schools.
“Some children are traumatized by the death of a pet or a minor car accident but others can easily process these events in their brains”
While many children are able to cope with small traumas, most kids’ brains can’t cope with events such as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse or neglect; witnessing domestic, community, or school violence; serious car accidents; natural disasters; and violent death of a family member and may develop symptoms in response to experiencing them. Children who have strong coping skills and strong emotional, physical and social supports are less likely to experience an event as traumatic. Parents can play a vital role in preventing trauma and helping a child cope with a trauma.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Children who have experienced trauma may develop symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a disorder that is often seen in veterans who have experienced life-threatening situations during war. Most children haven’t experienced this kind of extreme trauma, but we can see many of the same symptoms that we see in veterans of war. We may notice that children are having random moments of remembering and reliving the trauma, aptly named flashbacks because of their tendency to be sudden and intense. Children recovering from trauma, may also have difficulty remembering the event or may avoid situations that remind them of the event. We may also notice that they are more easily startled by things such as loud sounds and may have a more extreme reaction to them. Children may also be irritable or aggressive.
Common Trauma Symptoms in Children
Many times a child may not meet the criteria for PTSD but their parent or teacher is noticing worrying symptoms. For children who have been sexually abused, parents may notice that their child has started to act out in sexually inappropriate ways. Other parents may notice their child has difficulty regulating their emotions or has started abusing alcohol or drugs. Some of the most common trauma symptoms include:
- Fear and extreme anxiety
- Sadness or depression
- Mood Swings
- Avoiding reminders of the trauma (people, places, feelings)
- Low self-esteem
- Substance abuse
- Social Isolation
Trauma and School
Children who have experienced a trauma may also have more difficulty paying attention in school, a symptom which is often mistaken for ADHD. These children are also more at risk for developing disorders that affect learning and behavior. Therefore, it’s easy to see why trauma often goes unnoticed by schools and parents and is misidentified as ADHD or simply misbehavior. Schools may also notice that traumatized children seem to withdraw from peers or become aggressive with them, which leads to traumatized children having more disciplinary problems at school.
So how do we know when a child has experienced a traumatic event? In order to answer this question, we must understand some basic facts about how their brains work and develop and how trauma can halt the normal process of development. A person’s brain is not fully developed until the age of 25 which means that anything that happens to us between birth and age 25 has the ability to shape the development of the brain.
Research on brain development has shown us that when a person experiences a traumatic event, specific areas of the brain are activated to keep us safe. The amygdala is the brain structure that controls our survival instincts and motivates us to survive. It also signals the release of stress hormones that help us fight or run from danger. When our ancestors came upon a life-threatening situation, such as a hungry lion, their instinctual fight or flight response kicked in to help them avoid death. The fight or flight response initiates a number of physiological responses that help to keep us alive in the face of danger, including:
- Increased heart rate
- Tense muscles
- Sweaty skin
- More sensitive hearing
If a child experiences continuous and frequent trauma, the fight or flight response is always activated and the child may feel as if they’re always in danger. The stress hormones that keep us safe in a moment of danger cause damage when they are heightened long-term. This long-term arousal can cause brain structures to become underdeveloped, resulting in behavioral problems such as conflict with peers, anger and irritability, inability to concentrate in school, and problems with sleeping or eating.
The Lifelong Impact of Trauma
Trauma’s impact is not only seen during childhood but can affect a person throughout their lives if left unaddressed. Adults who have experienced a childhood trauma are more at risk of a variety of physical and mental health problems. A study performed by the American Health Maintenance Organization, Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study or ACEs looked at how trauma in childhood impacts a person into and throughout adulthood. The study asked participants if they had experienced one or more of the following traumatic experiences:
- Emotional or Psychological Abuse
- Physical Abuse
- Sexual Abuse
- Emotional Neglect
- Physical Neglect
- Parental Divorce or Separation
- Witnessing Domestic Violence
- Alcoholic or Drug Addict Caregiver
- Caregiver with Mental Illness
- Living with someone who went to prison
The more traumatic events an adult experienced before the age of 18, the more at risk they are for a variety of issues including mental health diagnoses; chronic health problems like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease; alcoholism and drug abuse; and lack of success in their professional and personal lives.
What Can Parents Do?
Of course we would love to live in a world where all trauma is preventable, however the reality is that trauma is a part of life. The ACEs study found that almost half of all participants in the U.S. has experienced one or more of the traumatic experiences listed above. Because we are so likely to experience a trauma before the age of 18, mental health research has focused on ways to help a child’s brain process the trauma and continue normal development.
So what can we do for our kids who have been traumatized? How can we prevent the effects from impacting them for the rest of their lives? The best and most effective way to help a child process a trauma is through counseling. At Brittani Persha Counseling, we are all educated on trauma and how it affects a child’s brain and behavior. We select therapies that are based on the most up-to-date trauma research and take into account the child’s developmental level. Treating the trauma soon after it occurs will allow the child to continue into adulthood without suffering the long-term effects of an unaddressed trauma.
Helping your Child Cope with Trauma
Parents can also help a child to cope and process through a traumatic experience. Parents can help their child by:
- Reassuring child that they are going to protect them
- Showing the child love and support
- Helping the child regulate their emotions (See Secrets Inside Your Child’s Developing Brain)
- Expressing positive feelings and belief in the child
- Teaching the child skills to cope with stress
Counseling for Children with PTSD in Houston, TX
If your child has been through any sort of overwhelming traumatic experience, they may benefit from child therapy services. As Houston area family & child counseling clinic, Brittani Persha Counseling has child behavior specialists and works to provide parents & child caregivers support throughout the therapy process. Whether you are looking for play therapy for a pre schooler or mental health therapy for an elementary child with anxiety, we are here to help. Children are resilient and child & family counseling can help them move forward after early trauma. Brittani Persha Counseling also offers counseling services for teenagers and adults who have experienced trauma. Call today to talk about how our professional trauma counselors can help your entire family!
Can Traumatic Stress Alter the Brain? Understanding the Implications of Early Trauma on Brain Development and Learning Victor G. Carrion, M.D.*, and Shane S. Wong Stanford Early Life Stress Research Program, Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University, Stanford, California Article history: Received November 22, 2011; Accepted April 18, 2012 Keywords: PTSS; MRI; Hippocampus; PFC; Cortisol; Learning