An estimated 25 percent of children in the general population have experienced a traumatic event. Nearly 75 percent of children in the juvenile justice system have experienced trauma. Those numbers are really something to think about.
The effects of trauma are far and wide, whether the trauma occurs in childhood or as an adult. When a child or teen experiences trauma, however, it can literally change their behavior.
What is Trauma?
Trauma is any event experienced by an individual that is physically or emotionally harmful because the individual perceives his or her life or the life of someone close to them as threatened.
Traumatic events may include (note that this is not an exhaustive list):
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Psychological abuse or maltreatment
- Domestic violence
- Forced separation from a caregiver
- Serious medical illness or injury
- Community violence
- School violence
- Loss of a loved one/traumatic grief
- Natural disasters
- Displacement and refugee trauma
- Sex trafficking
Behavioral Effects of Trauma in Children
Children who experience trauma can experience a multitude of behavioral effects. Some children may experience what seems to be just a few effects (though there might be more effects that are just more carefully hidden) or several effects. They can experience some effects all at once or may show some now while others gradually progress into existence as the child grows.
Following are just a handful of some of the effects you might see in a child who has experienced trauma (source: “Play Therapy with Traumatized Children: A Prescriptive Approach” by Paris Goodyear-Brown).
One indicator that a child may have experienced trauma is heightened irritability. The irritability, however, must represent a substantial change from the child’s previous functioning. For example, if your child, before the trauma, was mild mannered and easy going and slow to anger, but now exhibits irritability, mood swings, and is quick to anger, this might be considered a substantial change from the child’s previous functioning.
Irritability can stem from a number of things, especially anxiety. Though I will not go into the psychological effects of childhood trauma in this article, it should be remembered that anxiety, whether someone has experienced trauma or not, can often manifest as anger in children. When a traumatized child is anxious, whether it presents as anger or worry, you may see acting out behaviors. When a child is unable to identify what he is feeling or has difficulty expressing his feelings, it makes it much more difficult to be able to effectively self-regulate. So as the anxiety or irritability/frustration rises, his feelings will likely come out in his behavior.
Kids who have been traumatized in some way, whether the trauma history was acute or chronic, are always listening, always watching, and are consequently exhausted by their felt need to always be on alert.
You may observe an extreme startle response in these children if you come up behind them and tap them on the shoulder. While playing or at school, these kids may abruptly stop what they’re doing when they hear a noise.
My office is located on a busy downtown street, in close vicinity to the police station and a fire station, as well as near a heavily populated university campus. Siren sounds are a norm and can be heard sometimes as often as three or more times in an hour time span. If a child is showing hypervigilance, I can often observe it with my own eyes in the playroom. They can be working intensely on any activity, but when the siren starts, these kids will jump or adamantly ask me what’s wrong, what’s going on. Some are unable to return to their activity until they have received enough assurance that they are safe.
Nightmares and Night Terrors
Kids who have experienced trauma may have a range of sleep disturbances. Nightmares and night terrors are especially common reactions to trauma.
Nightmares occur during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, while night terrors occur during the transitions between stages of non-REM sleep and are uniquely characterized by the sudden arousal from slow-wave sleep. Night terrors generally occur within two hours of sleep onset.
With nightmares, the child usually will wake up on his own and will remember specific content from the nightmare he’s had. He will likely seek out a caregiver for comfort, who is able to easily soothe him. The child typically will fall back to sleep quickly.
Night terrors are different. With night terrors, the child may sit straight up in bed and appear to be awake while screaming or crying inconsolably. A parent may mistake their child as being conscious when in fact he is actually in deep sleep. It can be difficult to wake a child out of a night terror, and it is not advised that you try, as it’s often very difficult to soothe a child who has had a night terror interrupted. It’s generally best to let the night terror run its course. Afterward, the child does not remember what they were dreaming about.
Avoidance of people, places, or things that remind the child who has experienced trauma is a classic symptom of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). These children may avoid any or all reminders of the event(s). Kids may refuse to talk about what’s happened. Kids who have experienced abuse may avoid contact with anyone who even looks like the perpetrator.
In some kids who have experienced trauma, you may see an increase in risk-taking behavior. For example, in the playroom I might see the child set a chair on top of the couch, then proceed to sit in the chair and pretend to be a race car driver. When there is no immediately stressful event in the child’s life, he may create one by risk-taking in order to feel what he is used to feeling (what he felt during and throughout the time he was traumatized).
Many children have experienced maltreatment or abuse that occurred in a cyclical pattern. A sexually or physically abused child, for instance, may be assaulted and then left untouched for several weeks. Just as the child begins to relax and to hope that it might not happen again, it happens again. And again.
These kids live in a state of constant hypervigilance. Many of them will experience relief just after the act has occurred, relieved that it will now be some time before it happens again. The longer the respite from the abuse, the more certain the child becomes that the next instance is just around the corner. This makes the child’s anxiety climb higher and higher. Eventually the thing they most fear does happen again, reinforcing the cycle.
When a child who has experienced such cyclical trauma is given a way out, the immediate danger is removed; he may be assured that he is safe now. Unfortunately, the child’s physiological time clock takes longer to be so assured and reset. The body has stored the rhythm of abuse, but now the object reality of the abuse is interrupted. His body is waiting for it. The longer the child goes without experiencing the abuse, the more sure his sympathetic and parasympathetic systems become that the event is imminent.
The high anxiety that this surety creates is exhausting for the person who has experienced trauma, so they begin searching for a solution. Enter risk-taking. Risk-taking behavior increases the likelihood that the bad thing will happen soon. In other words, the child is waiting for the other shoe to drop, and the anxiety becomes so intense that he goes ahead and drops the other shoe himself.
Cognitive Effects/Effects on Thought Life
When a child has been traumatized, you’re also likely to see the effects trauma has on his cognition and thought life. A traumatized child may have difficulty concentrating, be easily distracted, and exhibit a short attention span and poor impulse control, all manifestations of a child’s response to the trauma. It is easy to see why so many child trauma survivors are mistakenly diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Kids may also develop idiosyncratic fears or specific worries that never troubled them before the trauma. Children may additionally perseverate on certain aspects of the trauma or develop maladaptive thoughts. These can understandably be quite distressing for kids; they may be flooded by these thoughts and feel they have no mechanism for holding them in check.
Other effects you might observe in children who have experienced trauma are dissociation and guilt. In older children and teens, you may see them begin to question their values and beliefs as they undergo the trauma recovery process.
Therapeutic intervention is often essential and can be very beneficial for children who have experienced trauma. Therapy can help alleviate a child’s symptoms and help return them to their pre-trauma functioning level. Frequently when trauma is not somehow addressed and processed in childhood, the trauma survivor will continue to experience manifestations of their experience even into adulthood.