What is Trauma?

Child traumatic stress refers to the physical and emotional responses of a child to events that threaten the life or physical integrity of the child or of someone critically important to the child (such as a parent or sibling). Traumatic events overwhelm a child’s capacity to cope and elicit feelings of terror, powerlessness and out-of-control physiological arousal. A child’s response to a traumatic event may have a profound effect on his or her perception of self, the world and the future.

  • Acute trauma is a single traumatic event that is limited in time.
  • Chronic trauma refers to the experience of multiple traumatic events.
  • Complex trauma describes both exposure to chronic trauma — usually caused by adults entrusted with the child’s care — and the impact of such exposure on the child.

Traumatic events may affect a child’s:

  • Ability to trust others
  • Sense of personal safety
  • Effectiveness in navigating life changes

Traumatic stress can adversely impact a child’s ability to protect himself/herself from abuse and the child’s altered world view may lead to behaviors that are self-destructive or dangerous, including premature sexual activities. Repeated traumatic experiences, particularly in very young children, and especially those at the hands of caregivers, can actually alter crucial pathways in the developing brain. Over time, a child who has felt overwhelmed over and over again may not react normally to even minor everyday stresses.

The impact of a potentially traumatic event depends on several factors, including:

  • The child’s age and developmental stage
  • The child’s perception of the danger faced
  • Whether the child was the victim or a witness
  • The child’s relationship to the victim or perpetrator
  • The child’s past experience with trauma
  • The adversities the child faces following the trauma
  • The presence/availability of adults who can offer help and protection

Children who have been through trauma may show a range of symptoms that are called “traumatic stress reactions.” These reactions are grouped into three categories.

  • Hyperarousal — means the child is jumpy, nervous or quick to startle
  • Re-experiencing — means images, sensations or memories of the traumatic event keep coming uncontrollably into the child’s mind
  • Avoidance and withdrawal — means the child feels numb, frozen, shut-down or separated from normal life, and may pull away from friends and activities, even those he or she used to enjoy. Sometimes children withdraw to avoid any reminders of the traumatic event.

Children may be non-symptomatic during the initial removal process, but may begin to display trauma reactions and symptoms after they have been placed in a safe home. The child’s reaction to traumatic stress can adversely impact the placement stability due to the child’s inability to regulate his or her moods leading to behaviors that threaten stable placements and reunification. Additionally, the child may lack trust in caregivers, which may lead to rejection of possible caring adults or to superficial attachments. Early experiences and attachment problems may reduce a child’s natural empathy for others, including foster or adoptive family members. New resource parents, unaware of the child’s trauma history or of what memories are linked to strong emotional reactions, may inadvertently trigger strong reminders of trauma.

Traumatic stress reactions can lead to a range of troubling, confusing and sometimes alarming behaviors and emotional responses in children. For example, they:

  • May have trouble learning. They may not be able to focus, concentrate or take in new information
  • May have trouble going to sleep or staying asleep, or experience nightmares when they do sleep
  • May feel moody, being tearful one minute and cheerful the next, or suddenly becoming angry or aggressive
  • May not “act their age,” instead reacting like a much younger child

Although these emotional reactions and behaviors can be frustrating and challenging, they are not calculated or conscious. Children who have been through trauma may act out for a variety of unconscious reasons.

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