Signs of Childhood Trauma
Signs of childhood trauma: is my child traumatised?
- Why is my child acting differently?
- Is their personality changing?
- Are they experiencing difficulties?
Signs of trauma in children can often go unnoticed as they can be attributed to growing up or acting difficult. However, it is worth looking past the surface and paying attention to any changes in behaviour as they might signal something is wrong.
What is trauma?
In psychology, trauma is defined as an emotional reaction to a stressful event experienced directly or indirectly. Nearly anything can be traumatic as long as the child views it as physically or emotionally threatening. Examples include abuse, natural disaster, domestic violence, a serious car accident, bullying, neglect or invasive medical procedures.
During The First World War, soldiers’ psychological distress was associated with a reaction to explosions and coined “shell shock”. The symptoms were believed to subside with time as long as no family history of mental illness was present. Similarly, during the Second World War traumatised soldiers were diagnosed with “exhaustion” that again implied they would recover naturally.
It wasn’t until the Vietnam War that it became apparent that healthy soldiers could experience chronic effects of stress long after exposure. This discovery eventually led to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) becoming a recognised term in 1980.
Why is recognising early signs important?
PTSD is a serious mental health condition that develops when symptoms of trauma persist.
Children can be especially vulnerable to the effects of trauma. Imagine their brain is just like a sponge: while they are learning to navigate the world around and acquire new skills, they are similarly likely to absorb distressing experiences.
PTSD is more likely to develop if a child has a history of trauma or if a child perceived their life to be in danger during a traumatic event.
Another predictor is peritraumatic dissociation which is a disconnection from thoughts, feelings and surroundings. Since young children are especially vulnerable and less equipped to deal with distressing situations, mentally escaping the situation is often the only way for them to cope.
Recognising the symptoms of trauma in children is challenging, especially if you aren’t aware that a traumatic event occurred. However, learning to spot them is important as lack of adequate support is another risk factor for developing PTSD.
Below are signs your child might have experienced childhood trauma.
Signs of childhood trauma in preschool children
- forgetting basic skills such as doing their laces
- regression (a child might start acting younger, for example by sucking their thumb or returning to bedwetting)
- disorientation (a child might be confused about who they are, their surroundings or time)
- increased fear that can manifest itself as clinging to a caregiver, nightmares, crying more than usual, recreating trauma through play or developing new fears
- changed behaviour such as becoming more aggressive and loss of enjoyment of activities
- poor eating
- unexplained physical pain
Signs of trauma in primary school children
- memory loss (a child might deny a misdemeanour because they don’t remember it happening)
- numbness and emotional withdrawal
- avoidance (a child might start avoiding places, activities or people they associate with a traumatic event)
- changes in behaviour (anxiety, depression, feeling of guilt, irritability, mood swings and aggressive behaviours)
- changes in school performance and poor concentration
- unexplained physical pain
- difficulties sleeping
Signs of trauma in middle and high school children
- feeling of emptiness and emotional withdrawal (a child might say they have no feelings associated with the event)
- risky behaviours such as using drugs or becoming sexually active
- eating disorders
- sleep disturbances
- general changes in behaviour that might include more frequent anger, anxiety, irritability, mood swings, feeling depressed
What can you do as a parent?
While professional help is crucial in treating trauma, the support of the relatives is as important. Ultimately, you’re the person who spends the most time with your child and can be a positive force in their recovery.
Accept their emotions. Many children are taught not to express negative emotions which can be especially detrimental with a history of trauma. Your child might cry frequently or become emotionally withdrawn. They might experience emotional outbursts or turn their anger inwards. By accepting your child’s emotions you’re allowing them to process the trauma through their feelings and giving them space to communicate.
Let your child talk about the traumatic event. But only if they feel ready to do so. Sometimes being supportive isn’t enough to make your child open up and they might need more time. Once they are ready, praise them for being brave enough to share their thoughts and thank them for trusting you enough.
Be understanding. Acknowledge that everyone is different and everyone copes differently. Your child might struggle with attending to basic tasks, might become withdrawn or fearful. They might prefer seeing their friends than seeking support from you. Remember to be patient and let your child know their behaviour is normal.
Try to identify their triggers. While it’s important for your child to maintain a routine and continue going to school, you should try to avoid situations that might be unnecessarily upsetting. Pay attention to how your child responds to specific situations and conversation topics. It will allow you to identify triggers that cause negative emotions and remind them of trauma.
Encourage self-esteem and positive experiences. Your child will likely have negative beliefs about themselves as a result of trauma. They might feel unworthy of love and believe things will never get better. Encourage your child to challenge those beliefs: help them make a list of unhealthy thoughts and replace them with positive thoughts. Additionally, you can encourage your child to try a new hobby or learn a new skill to increase their self-esteem and a sense of purpose.
It’s never too late to seek help and never too early to pay attention to the warning signs. If your child is experiencing the symptoms above, contact My Family Psychologist for a confidential chat.