The Impact of Trauma on Child Development 

The numbers are harrowing. Nearly 70 percent of children experience trauma before they turn 18. The causes are varied. They can range from natural disasters to domestic violence. A traumatized child may have endured the death of a loved one or abuse by a loved one. Regardless of the source, the outcomes are particularly negative since that age range lacks the emotional skills to process such events.

Trauma teaches a child that they are not safe — even around people they should trust. This entire process can impair the child’s normal development. Their brains are altered in ways that impact the nervous and immune systems.

Signs of Traumatic Stress in Children

Needless to say, these symptoms can vary for each survivor. But there are some recognized trends based on age:

Preschool Age

  • Nightmares
  • Crying fits and acting out
  • Appetite disruptions that lead to weight loss
  • Extreme fear of being separated from a primary caregiver

Elementary School Age

  • Inability to focus and concentrate
  • Chronic anxiety
  • Expressing feelings of shame or guilt
  • Sleep disturbances

Middle and High School Age

  • Experimenting with substances
  • Engaging in risky behaviors
  • Disordered eating and self-harm
  • Depressed mood and social isolation

Any of the above can be a serious red flag. It’s important to act quickly. If left unchecked, trauma will have an increasingly more serious impact.

The Impact of Trauma on Child Development

As mentioned, since trauma can affect childhood development, the impact can last well into adulthood. Here are three general categories of effects:

Mental Health

Traumatic events during childhood are often called adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). ACEs are three times the risk of mental health issues in adulthood. For individual conditions, that number can be much higher. For example, children who undergo ACEs can be as much as 15 times more likely to develop borderline personality disorder as adults.

Other trauma-induced mental health problems may include:

  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Anger control problems
  • Inability to manage stress
  • Emotional distress
  • Dissociation

Trauma survivors — especially when it involves abuse — are much more likely to have suicidal ideation and engage in suicide attempts.

Physical Health

The stress created by ACEs can hamper a child’s physical development. This is due to the impairment of both the central nervous system and the immune system. Running parallel to that trend is the reality that exposure to trauma increases the risk of chronic diseases like:

  • Coronary heart disease
  • Asthma
  • Stroke
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Pulmonary disease
  • Chronic pain

Relationship Issues

It’s not hard to imagine that childhood trauma very much influences how that child interacts with others as an adult. When we’re young, we develop our attachment style based on how we’re treated by parents and other caregivers. A dysfunctional connection can lead to ongoing relationship problems later in life due to an insecure attachment style. Some of the factors in this dynamic are:

  • Lack of Trust: For obvious reasons, it’s not easy for a trauma survivor to be vulnerable. Trusting others does not feel safe.
  • Repressed Emotions: It also doesn’t feel safe to share and discuss their feelings. This is not conducive to creating deep friendships or romantic bonds.
  • People Pleasing: They are afraid of abandonment, so they become clingy and needy. It feels impossible to say no to others.

You Can Heal and Recover

Trauma — even years or decades later — can be treated, processed, and resolved. On top of that, you can change to a secure attachment style as an adult. Working with a trauma-focused therapist is a proven path for such results. If you or someone you know is struggling from childhood trauma, I invite you to reach out and connect soon.

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