How to Support Victims of Childhood Trauma
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The impact of early childhood trauma is particularly taxing on human development. Early childhood describes life from ages 0 to 6 and includes a time of dramatic growth and vulnerabilities. A trauma may take the form of physical or sexual abuse, a natural disaster, medically painful experiences, witnessing domestic violence, or being exposed to other acts of terror or war. What makes this type of distress especially troublesome are two aspects: children this age have a difficult time verbalizing their concerns, and their fragile development depends upon security.
The Unique Aspects of Childhood Development
According to developmental stage theories, each age group has specific tasks to accomplish for healthy growth. This expectation is difficult for young children, because they rely so much on adults for care and guidance. From birth, children’s main developmental task is to cultivate secure relationships with others. In other words, they need to feel safe and loved to create positive attachments. If this task is not achieved, they are more susceptible to forming dysfunctional relationships and attitudes, exhibiting poor self-concept, and struggling with symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Early childhood development also marks a time of extreme growth; for instance, the brain will develop more from age 0 to 3 than any other time. But research has shown that children who endure tragedies at a young age may exhibit a smaller brain cortex than those who do not. What does this mean? The brain cortex, or cerebrum, is the main part of the brain—the outer layer. Its functions include memory, attention, language, decision making, consciousness, and perception. Imagine if this part of the brain is smaller? These processes are crucial to human development and later achievement.
Chances are you know a child who is affected by such trauma. One study has identified that nearly half of all children from ages 2-5 have experienced some form of disturbance. Of children who suffer, 78% endure more than one type of traumatic event. What is particularly concerning about this situation is that children rely upon others for their safety, and they don’t understand the world as clearly as adults. They can’t protect themselves or predict when a traumatic event will occur. Their vulnerability creates an especially distressing situation for them and for others who care for them. Adults in positions of support should approach their recovery from a point of understanding and compassion.
Identify Reactive Behaviors
You may be a loved one of a child who has recently undergone an obvious traumatic event. The incident could be the loss of a parent, friend, or someone else close to them. The child could have been in an accident, a natural disaster, or could be dealing with childhood cancer or another type of physical affliction. Even though the event is palpable, it doesn’t make it any less traumatic or difficult to cope with. One the other hand, you may be a loved one of a child who demonstrates a host of negative behaviors, and you may suspect some type of abuse is occurring. These situations are delicate and require the actions of professionals, both in law enforcement and mental health. However, it is important to identify such behaviors in children, especially if they are sudden or uncommon for that individual.
These are just a few observable behaviors of children who have experienced a traumatic event:
Children ages 0-2
· Startle easily
· Cry excessively
· Extreme and excessive temper tantrums
· Sleep poorly
· Act withdrawn
Children ages 3-6
· Excessive anger and aggression
· Difficulty sleeping and nightmares
· Attention issues (seeking both positive and negative)
· Imitate abusive behaviors
· Have trouble in school
How to Support a Child
Again, you may already know the details of a traumatic event or you may suspect that a child you know is suffering in silence. Regardless, it is necessary to get professional help. Every child will cope differently and display an array of behaviors and symptoms as a result of the trauma. Therefore, it is important to provide individual support of a child that is unique to his or her needs, especially during such a delicate time of development.
There is much hope for children who have a strong support system in light of a traumatic event. Such protective factors include strong community intervention and support, parental resilience, knowledge of childhood developmental needs, social connections, and more. Each person in a young child’s life has a stake in his or her recovery, including physicians, mental health professionals, teachers and other caregivers, and friends and family members.
If you are a family member or caregiver of a child who needs your support, there are many ways you can help. The objective is to promote positive growth through providing a safe and stable environment.
· Explain and answer questions in a developmentally appropriate level. Be as honest as you can.
· Aid children in communicating their emotions in a healthy way.
· Create a consistent environment, with expectations, routines, and schedules.
· Provide children with age- and developmentally-appropriate activities that foster growth.
· Maintain a loving, patient, and compassionate bond.
· Establish safety plans.
· Participate in traditions and customs that expand their support system and feel a sense of belonging.
· Seek external support through a network of professionals.
- Melissa Lavery, M. S.
Early Childhood Trauma. (2010, August). Retrieved March 17, 2015, from http://www.nctsn.org/trauma-types/early-childhood-trauma
Lee, A., & Hankin, B. (2009, September 10). Insecure Attachment, Dysfunctional Attitudes, and Low Self-Esteem Predicting Prospective Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety During Adolescence. Retrieved March 17, 2015, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2741157/
Protective Factors to Promote Well-Being. (n.d.). Retrieved March 17, 2015, from https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/preventing/promoting/protectfactors/?hasBeenRedirected=1