It’s a commonly held belief that young children aren’t as affected by traumatic events because of their age—that they’re likely to forget terrible experiences and move on unscathed.
Research has found this to be untrue. Childhood trauma is extremely valid, affecting children from 0-6 years of age. Everything from witnessing violent acts and physical/sexual abuse to living through events that threaten their lives or the lives of parents or primary caregivers, has a major impact on the young child.
Their still developing brains cannot make sense of overwhelming stimuli that might be violent, loud, unpredictable, and damaging to their sense of safety. This is what makes early childhood trauma so unique—they have no tools to express their feelings, or to process their experiences the way older children and adults do.
The particular vulnerability of young children is what puts them at greater risk when it comes to experiencing trauma. Having a brain that’s not fully developed, and then impacted by a traumatic event can cause major roadblocks in future development. Reduction in the size of the child’s brain cortex is one of the most significant effects of childhood trauma.
This is the part of the brain that deals with language, thinking, perceptual awareness, memory, and attention to name a few. Without the ability to effectively communicate what they’re going through, children will often display new behaviors that are uncharacteristic to what they were like before the trauma.
They might show signs of heightened fear, severe separation anxiety, the inability to regulate emotions (intense anger tantrums), and even regression in recently learned skills and behaviors i.e. might start wetting the bed, etc. Between the ages of 0-2 years, children affected by trauma are likely to have memory problems, poor verbal skills, lack of appetite and weight loss, and bouts of excessive crying or screaming.
For children aged 3-6 years, the symptoms enter a different range. Concentrating at school might become a problem, leading to learning difficulties and even learning disabilities. The development of new skills is also greatly hindered, and overwhelming emotion could cause them to act out more often. These children will have low self-confidence and a distinct lack of trust of others, making it hard to form friendships. Complaints of physical symptoms, like frequent headaches or stomach aches is also common.
Unlike older children, a child between 0-6 years depends entirely on adults to help them through their healing process, and it takes a certain kind of awareness from parents/caregivers to be sensitive to the needs of the young child who’s gone through significant trauma. Teenagers, for instance, have very strong emotions after going through a particularly distressing event.
They might feel guilt, sadness, anger, and anxiety—overwhelmed by repetitive thoughts of the traumatic experience and a great fear of it happening again. But where younger children will be clingy and look to the parent/caregiver for support, a teenager will seek isolation, more readily turning to their peer group than their family if they want support.
The long-term effects of traumatic stress are extremely detrimental to a young child. Living with overwhelming feelings they cannot make sense of or process takes its toll and left unaddressed, a child’s feelings of fear and sadness about a traumatic event can develop into depression and anxiety after a several weeks, with the potential of getting even worse. It’s also common for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) to follow.
This will present in the child having recurring flashbacks of the event, which can be very distressing. They will also exhibit avoidance behavior, like refusing to drive in a car if they were in a car accident, and have disturbed sleeping patterns because of constant nightmares. Parents/caregivers can help by offering support and reassurance to the child that they will always do their best to keep them safe.
Encourage opencommunication if they want to talk about the event or ask questions, and always validate their feelings to make them understand there’s nothing wrong with the way they feel. Be honest, but also be selective of the information you share. Graphic details are best left unmentioned.
However, if their symptoms last for more than a month, it can be a great disruption to a child’s day-to-day living, and it would be time to seek professional help. There is much that parents/caregivers can do to help a child process their negative experiences, but when that child is suffering for several weeks with no sign of it getting better, the only conclusion to draw is that over time it will only keep getting worse.
If you are concerned about the wellbeing of your child after a traumatic event, having noticed the persistence of the symptoms mentioned in this article, please contact us at ZwavelStream Clinic for more information on treatment for childhood trauma and other disorders developed through trauma.