16 Minutes

By THE BALANCE
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Childhood trauma, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, is defined as “The experience of an event by a child that is emotionally painful or distressful, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects.” Even though all children face stress at some point in their lives, the vast majority grow up in caring, loving, non-abusive families and do not suffer from any form of trauma. The unfortunate fact is that oftentimes there are children who have been exposed to traumatic events that go unaddressed and result in the child becoming overwhelmed with emotions later in life.

According to national research, as many as 71 percent of all children are exposed to a potentially traumatic experience by the time they reach the age of 16-18. According to a poll, an estimated 60 to 80 percent of all children have been exposed to at least one potentially traumatic event during their lives.

Trauma is defined as an overwhelming, unexpected event or incident that the individual is unable to mediate or process on their own self. Traumatic incidents pose a direct threat to a person’s physical and psychological well-being. When a child is exposed to trauma, he or she may not be able to cope with the situation. Traumatic experiences usually result in an excessive “fight or flight” reaction, which is an excess of a normal physiological response to external danger.

Once caught up by these abnormal reactions, the child feels an intense need to flee from the painful experience, and in some cases, feels trapped and unable to retreat from the situation. It can be a traumatic event that causes a loss of control over the actions of oneself. Traumatic situations can result in intense, overpowering emotions that are difficult to manage and cope with on a daily basis. Some events are more likely to be traumatic than others, and people might have diverse reactions to the same event at various times in their lives.

Following a stressful incidence, between 3% to 14% of girls and 1% to 7% of boys acquire post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Children who suffer from PTSD may repeatedly relive the tragedy in their imaginations. Additionally, kids may avoid anything that reminds them of the trauma, or they may recreate it in their playtime. Usually, children believe they have learned to identify warning signs and ignore triggers for re-imagination of the traumatic events. Paradoxically, in an attempt to avert future tragedies, they become hyper-vigilant in their quest for warning indications, leading to a baseline level of consistent stress and apprehension.

Children who have experienced trauma can have lasting effects on their daily life as well as their capacity to get along with others. When a child is exposed to trauma, it can have a detrimental effect on their daily lives and their capacity to interact with others could be seriously limited. It is natural to have certain overwhelming reactions to trauma shortly after the trauma-causing event. These reactions become a concern when the symptoms particularly those that interfere with a child’s daily life persist and do not seem to improve with time.

Chronic traumatic stress reactions, such as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, and other mental health concerns can develop in children who have been exposed to potentially traumatic situations. Some of these include:

Early Childhood Trauma. Early childhood trauma is a broad term that refers to traumatic incidents that occur to children between the ages of 0 and 6.

Physical Abuse. When a parent or caregiver commits an act that leads to physical harm to the child or adolescent, this is considered physical abuse.

Bullying. Bullying is an intentional and uninvited act committed with the goal of causing psychological, physical, social,  and/or emotional damage to someone who is generally seen as a weak person in a certain group.

Medical Trauma. Pediatric medical trauma is a term that refers to a collection of complex physiological and psychological reactions that children and their families experience in relation to singular or several medical occurrences.

Sexual Abuse. Childhood sexual abuse occurs when a child interacts with an adult (or other children) for the purpose of sexual excitement for the perpetrator or an observer.

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Intimate Partner Violence. Intimate partner violence or IPV, also commonly known as domestic violence, is when an individual intentionally causes injury or attempts to cause harm to a prior or current spouse or partner.

Traumatic Grief. Although many children adapt well following a death, others face unending issues that interfere with their daily life and they are unable to recollect the good memories of their bereaved loved ones.

Community Violence. Community violence relates to the deliberate exposure to actions of interpersonal violence performed in public spaces by individuals who are unrelated to the victim.

Complex Trauma. Complex trauma includes children’s exposure to a plethora of traumatic events – usually interpersonal and invasive – due to their unpleasant surroundings of childhood and the resulting widespread, long-lasting consequences of trauma of various sorts. 

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Disasters. Climate changes and natural disasters have a definite role in the mental reformation of children as these can lead to displacement from their childhood homes, can cause loss of their belongings and separation from their caregivers and loved ones apart from the numerous physical hardships that come along with climatic disasters. Floods, tsunamis, wildfires, tornadoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes are examples of natural disasters, as are extreme conditions of weather such as wind storms, excessive heat, droughts, and blizzards.  

Refugee Trauma. Most refugees, particularly children, have endured trauma as a result of conflict or persecution, which can have a profound effect on their physical health and emotional wellbeing.

Sex Trafficking. Child sex trafficking is defined as the act of giving or receiving something of value (clothing, food, shelter, money, or drugs) to another person in return for a sexual act with a minor.

Terrorism and Violence. Mass violence, acts of terrorism, or communal trauma in the form of bombings, shootings, or other sorts of assaults can have a tremendous effect on the mental health of families and their children.

Additionally, some secondary stressors that might influence a child who has experienced a traumatic event include:

  1. Alteration in the family’s living conditions
  2. Restrictions in access to community resources
  3. Transitions in school, friends, and family structure and function
  4. Changes in the availability and utilization of social assistance 
  5. Changes in the responsibilities of additional tasks by caregivers.
  6. medical/surgical treatment, rehabilitative services, and legal proceedings

Adults with a history of childhood trauma may have a variety of symptoms. When diagnosing an adult with immediate signs of trauma, there is no straightforward protocol to adopt. However, trauma victims may have some common physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms. Here are a few indications that you or someone you know is dealing with trauma.

Disturbed Emotional State

  • Anger that is out of proportion
  • Feelings of apprehension
  • Excessive emotional outbursts
  • Prone to panic attacks
  • Low mood 
  • difficulties with adjustment in new surroundings

Disordered Attachment

  • Inability to put their trust in people
  • Uncertainty regarding the other person’s trustworthiness or reliability
  • Problems with relationships
  • Isolation from others
  • Having a hard time asking for help
  • Clingy and unable to separate

Physical

  • Problems with sensorimotor development
  • Intolerance of physical touch
  • Somatization
  • Higher healthcare complications
  • Motor coordination and equilibrium disorders

Disruption of psychosomatic regulation

  • Difficulties with controlling emotions
  • Easily agitated and/or having difficulties settling down 
  • Feelings and emotions are difficult to comprehend
  • Issues in verbal communication

Control of Behavior

  • Weak impulse control
  • Self-harming conduct
  • Oppositional behavior
  • Unjustified aggressiveness
  • Excessive adherence
  • Disturbance of sleep
  • Problems of eating habits
  • An overwhelming urge of falling back to the tragic event/period in the past
  • Self-soothing behaviors that are unhealthy

Cognition

  • Attention-deficit
  • Unable to sustain curiosity
  • Issues with information processing Issues with focusing on/completing jobs
  • Problems with anticipating and planning for outcomes
  • Difficulties with learning and resultant developmental delays
  • Problems with linguistic development and struggles with learning new languages

Self-Concept

  • Loss of insight and self-awareness
  • Sense of separation and/or dissociation from surroundings
  • Thoughts of unjustified grandeur
  • Low self-image 
  • Lack of self-esteem 
  • Excessive regret and guilt

In addition, Childhood trauma may raise a person’s risk of developing:

  • Respiratory disorders such as Asthma
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Depressive illnesses
  • Type 2 Diabetes
  • Cerebrovascular accidents (CVA)

According to a 2016 study published in Psychiatric Times, the rate of suicide attempts was much greater among individuals who had been exposed to trauma as children, such as parental domestic violence, sexual abuse, and physical abuse.

While children are usually seen as highly adaptable and able to rebound from any situation, unresolved childhood trauma can have serious and long-lasting impacts far into adulthood. An unstable or unsafe environment, being separated from parents, abuse, neglect, significant illness, or unpleasant medical procedures are all causes of childhood trauma. Other possible causes include anything that makes a child feel vulnerable and destroys their feeling of security.

There is definite help and support available if you’re dealing with the aftereffects of a difficult childhood. In order to recover your life, you must first heal the traumas of your upbringing. Some important aspects of the healing process are discussed here.

Recognize the trauma for what it is and accept it. Many childhood trauma victims spend years trying to minimize or disregard the experience, either by pretending it never happened or by giving in to emotions of shame or self-blame they have about what happened to them. Beginning the healing process requires admitting a traumatic event had taken place and accepting that you had nothing to do with it.

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Regain command of the situation. It is possible for feelings of helplessness to last long into adulthood, causing you to act and feel like a victim all the time and make decisions based on your past suffering. For victims, the past dictates how they live in the present. However, the present is under your control once you’ve overcome your suffering. No matter how hard you try, as long as you’re willing to let go of the old defenses and crutches you used as a child to get through your trauma, it’s possible to take back control of the present and heal the past.

Don’t isolate yourself; instead, look for help. In many trauma survivors, the temptation is to withdraw, but this will only exacerbate the problem. Connecting with others is an important part of the healing process, so put in the effort to keep your bonds strong and look for help. Talk to someone you trust, such as a relative, close friend, or counselor, and think about attending a support group for people who have been through a traumatic childhood experience.

Take good care of your physical and mental well-being. Stress-coping skills improve when you are in good physical and mental health. Plan your day so that you get enough sleep, eat healthily, and exercise consistently. Above all else, abstain from alcohol and illegal substances. These may provide short-term respite, but over time, they will only serve to aggravate your despair, anxiety, and sense of loneliness, all of which are already present as a result of your trauma.

Learn to accept and let go of things as they are. The mere fact that you accept something does not imply that you are embracing your trauma, that you enjoy it, or that you agree with it. Acceptance involves making a decision on what to do with something after accepting it. You have the option of letting it control your life or letting it go. When you let go, it doesn’t magically disappear. In order to let go, you have to stop letting your terrible memories and sentiments from your past prevent you from having a fulfilling life right now.

Rewire your brain to think more positively. The feelings of negativity and uncertainty for others are two examples of bad habits, as is turning to alcohol or drugs when emotions become too much to handle. Especially if your bad habits have been used as a crutch to avoid the grief and trauma of your upbringing, it can be difficult to break them. Help from a group or a therapist can teach you how to break unhealthy behaviors and replace them with healthy ones.

Take your time and be kind to yourself. You acquire out-of-proportion emotions, a sense of helplessness, defense mechanism, and distorted perspectives when you’ve been significantly harmed as a child. To be able to let go of these emotions will take a lot of effort and time. Never give up on yourself, no matter how slow the development seems to be. When you’re healing from childhood trauma, small triumphs will help you win the war.

It is tough, but an essential journey to work through the trauma you experienced as a child. Adults who have experienced trauma as children are benefited from various effective treatments. They are capable of raising healthy and happy families, serving their communities, and living a full and contented life. Treatments for childhood trauma that have proven benefits in numerous studies include the following:

Cognitive Processing Trauma Therapy (CPT). Patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) benefit from cognitive processing treatment, a specific form of cognitive trauma healing therapy.

Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT). A form of psychotherapy known as trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy helps people heal from their trauma. Patients who have experienced trauma can use trauma-specific cognitive and emotional responses to enable them to transform damaging psychosomatic processes such as negative emotions, behavioral, and cognitive patterns into balanced and constructive thoughts. 

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). When undergoing eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, the patient recalls traumatic events while moving their eyes in a repetitive fashion.

Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET). The goal of narrative exposure therapy is to help those who have been traumatized by repeated incidents. NET entails laying out a patient’s life in chronological order and contextualizing both pleasant and traumatic occurrences.

Prolonged Exposure Therapy. Patients are exposed to painful memories for an extended period of time as part of prolonged exposure treatment, also known as flooding. This sort of therapy helps patients better appreciate and interpret their trauma.

Play Therapy. The therapeutic power of play is used to help kids in dealing with trauma. Children ages three to twelve are the primary focus of play therapy. The therapist can observe a child as he or she plays during a play therapy session. Additionally, they can use this age-appropriate activity to address trauma and establish coping mechanisms.

Art Therapy. Healing from traumatic events can be accomplished through art therapy. Sculpting, collage, painting, drawing, and coloring are examples of forms of art therapy.  According to the American Art Therapy Association, art therapy is a way to express one’s feelings without using language. It can improve self-awareness, self-esteem, and cognition as well as alleviate stress and minimize conflict.

Healing childhood trauma in adults is an arduous and challenging task, however, psychotherapy and rehabilitation make it possible to heal from childhood trauma.  Fortunately, more effective methods of treating trauma are being discovered because of the ongoing research and development in the sector. There has been considerable success with the newly developing forms of therapy known as EMDR in treating PTSD.

EMDR differs from other trauma treatments in that it focuses on the emotions involved with the experience rather than reliving it through discussion and bilateral sensory stimulation. Trauma affects everyone differently. Consult a therapist for a trauma diagnosis to have a better understanding of treating trauma.

Trauma therapists evaluate clients who have had a life-changing incident such as a devastating injury, the loss of a close relative, a history of abuse, and involvement in crime or conflict. They employ therapeutic strategies, such as Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, that have been shown in empirical studies to benefit trauma patients. They develop treatment programs, monitor the client’s progress, and make any adjustments to the plan. Additionally, they are expected to stay current on current research in order to ensure that all therapies are evidence-based and congruent with the most current understanding of trauma treatment.

A therapist who is familiar with the effect of negative childhood experiences on adult life, specifically traumatic should be sought. It is critical to creating a safe therapeutic environment in which you can build trust. The therapist must be understanding and accommodating of your initial mistrust in the therapy and even in the therapist. All sorts of emotions must be allowed to be expressed, encouraged, and heard. Anxiety, fear, sense of despair, and fury are all possible emotions that might be expressed.  It is essential that your therapy proceeds at your own pace. You should not be pushed, scrutinized, or expected to move quicker than you are capable of doing.

Among the primary responsibilities of a Childhood trauma therapist are the following:

  1. The first and foremost responsibility of a childhood trauma therapist is to do no harm and be as much beneficial in treating the given disorder as possible.
  2. Listening to the patient’s needs and determining the treatment that would be most beneficial to them.
  3. Discussing treatment plans with the patient and, if required, modifying them.
  4. Constantly assessing the client’s comfort level with the treatment being delivered.
  5. Advising and recommending alternative treatments.
  6. Assessing the session with the customer following the conclusion of the therapy.
  7. Recognize the patient’s present medical status in order to avoid exposing them to potentially dangerous therapies.
  8. Reading research on new medicines and staying current on medical advancements.
  9. Individualize treatment by providing a variety of options.
  10. Regular follow-up with the patient to check the effectiveness of the specific trauma method being utilized in the previous sessions.

FAQs