Mental Health

Children and trauma: what you need to know

April 28, 2019

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What is childhood trauma?  
Frightening, confusing or traumatic events happen to kids despite our best intentions to protect our children from negative situations or experiences. When children do not feel physically or emotionally safe and do not have secure relationships with trusted adults, they may experience changes that affect their ability to function.

Trauma can be perceived differently based on the individual. Many people believe trauma can only occur when there is a natural disaster, major catastrophe or loss of a loved one and are unaware that more commonplace situations such as an absent parent, divorce or a child being bullied on social media can have lasting effects.

We each have a different threshold for coping with life’s stressors and negative experiences; so, what one child may easily brush off, another child could experience a significant emotional trauma. Trauma comes in all shapes and sizes and can be a result from a chronic stressor such as homelessness or can be caused by a one-time event.  

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE)
In 1998, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente conducted a large-scale investigation of childhood abuse, neglect and household challenges to determine how traumatic experiences resulted in wide range of risk factors for disease, disability and early mortality. 

The original Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study looked at the effects of 10 types of adverse experiences in childhood and involved over 17,000 people who received physical exams and completed confidential surveys regarding their childhood experiences, current health status and behaviors.

According to final results, the rougher your childhood, the higher your score is likely to be and the higher your risk for health problems later in life. Take the ACE Quiz and learn your ACE score

A child who has experienced trauma

How does trauma affect my child?  
Trauma can affect every area of your child’s functioning, and it’s different for everyone. Trauma changes the wiring in a child’s brain and affects how your child’s brain continues to develop. If you think of your child’s brain like a puzzle that fits perfectly together; following a trauma, the puzzle pieces will not fit back together quite the same way. One area of the brain that is commonly affected is the fight-flight-freeze response. Trauma can continually activate a child’s fight or flight response, causing your child to have extreme reactions to minor disturbances or become completely withdrawn.  

Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, one of the leading researchers in early childhood trauma, describes the child’s brain like a smoke detector. In a child who has experienced trauma, the smoke detector becomes faulty and picks up smoke (or fear/danger) constantly, frequently misinterpreting facial expressions, voice tone or social interactions. Typical symptoms of trauma can include depression, anxiety, flashbacks, sleep disturbances, enuresis/encopresis, difficulty focusing, self-harm, isolating, irritability, hallucinations/delusions, quick changes in mood/temperament, denial and developmental regression. 

How do kids heal from trauma?
Every child responds differently. It’s important to remember that kids are extremely resilient, and many will be able to find ways to cope with difficult situations on their own.  You might not see any of the “typical” signs and symptoms. Symptoms can also come and go or change over time.

Establishing care with a mental health professional who specializes in trauma is most important. Having your child build a strong relationship with a therapist or counselor is necessary for your child to feel safe enough to be able to engage in the treatment in an age-appropriate way. Not all children will heal from talk therapy. Different approaches to therapy may include mindful breathing, music, movement, play therapy, rhythm or storytelling. The root cause of the trauma will need to be addressed without solely focusing on the symptoms.  

Does my child suffer from a mental health issue?  
Many parents fear their child is depressed or psychotic or “crazy” when experiencing symptoms of trauma. Childhood psychosis is extremely rare. If you have concerns, it is important to talk with a qualified mental health professional.  

Where can I learn more about childhood trauma? 

Trauma-Informed Oregon

The National Childhood Traumatic Stress Network

Body Keeps the Score by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk 

Written by Randall Children’s Hospital at Legacy Emanuel staff


Media inquiries: Kristin Whitney   

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