What Is Child Trauma? - Symptoms & Effects

Instructor: Gaines Arnold

Gaines has a Master of Science in Education.

This lesson discusses how child trauma can be identified by listing some symptoms and their effects. A scenario is given that demonstrates childhood trauma and treatment options are discussed.

How Trauma Develops

Being a child can be difficult even under the best of circumstances, but caretakers don't provide a safe and nurturing environment, it becomes even more problematic. Child trauma can range from having immediate but short-term problems to long-term problems.

Let's look at a scenario of two brothers. Eric was five and his younger brother Shane was three. The boys had been relatively happy throughout their young lives until their mother started dating again after their father left.

The boy's mother and her new boyfriend would go on drug binges every weekend. They locked the boys in a bathroom so they wouldn't get in the way and to keep them 'safe'. This experience left both boys scarred. Eventually, they were taken away and put in the foster care system.

Due to his developmental age and a belief that since he was older he should have looked out for his younger brother, Eric had a lot more emotional problems than Shane.

Symptoms of Trauma

Many of the people who initially fostered Eric had no idea what trauma he had endured at the hands of his former caregivers. They did notice that he seemed to be afraid of bathrooms because he always had to have the door open. There were also other issues that made foster parents wonder what type of suffering he had endured. Eric had:

  • Difficulty forming attachments with other children and adults.
  • Violent moods swings. Eric might go from calm, to angry, to despondent within just a few minutes.
  • Nightmares or sleep disturbances.
  • Irritability. Although Eric was normally compliant with requests, he would sometimes become extremely irritated.
  • Problems with thinking clearly and learning issues.

Eric preferred to have quiet one-on-one time with an adult. If he was forced to take part in group activities, he would often show irritability and then aggression.

Long-Term Effects of Trauma

Children are better able to overcome traumatic events than adults, even when they are extreme. They have the ability to forget, especially when they are very young, and will return to normal functioning over time.

Unfortunately, this is only common with short-term trauma or one that is relatively minor in its disruption to the child's life. When the trauma is long-term or extremely disrupting, the child may be faced with consequences that last a lifetime. However, calm, understanding, and support can help the child to heal.

What Treatments are Available?

If the trauma was a single event, the child will very likely get past any negative consequences over time. Mental health professionals are able to help children with this type of trauma by supporting the child and the family. They can also provide some coping mechanisms that the family can help the child use.

In the past, most children who experience a traumatic event do not receive any help from mental health services. This is because the child may seem to return to normal functioning despite what is happening to them emotionally.

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