What to know about childhood trauma

Melissa Erikson

From divorce to natural disasters, children are often tasked with coping with trauma and its lasting effects.

Nearly half of U.S. children — 31 million kids — have experienced a potentially traumatic event, according to the 2017-18 National Survey of Children’s Health.

The definition of childhood trauma tends to vary.

“Some studies or surveys may use a broad definition that includes a wide array of adverse childhood experiences,” said Dr. John Fairbank, codirector for the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.

These may include separations from caregivers through divorce or incarceration or having a parent with a severe mental illness or substance use problem, as well as extreme events, such as child maltreatment, exposure to domestic and community violence, surviving serious accidents, injuries such as vicious dog bites or illness requiring hospitalization, and natural and man-made disasters, such as armed conflicts, Fairbank said.

Other studies use a more targeted definition that focuses on more extreme events, such as the death of a parent.

“Regardless of how broad or specific the definition, the point is that childhood trauma refers to events and experiences that significantly increase children’s risk for serious behavioral, emotional, psychological and medical impairments,” Fairbank said.

Traumatic experiences may be profound for a child, who may not be able to convey how they feel about it. Parents and other adults can help especially by offering protection and taking their exposures to trauma seriously.

“Although many types of childhood trauma are observable — especially events that occur within communities such as natural disasters, house fires, school shootings and injurious automobile accidents — other types of trauma may be far less obvious to the adults engaged in a child’s life,” Fairbank said.

Examples of this include trauma within the family or the child’s social network, such as exposure to domestic violence, physical abuse or sexual abuse.

“In any case, when a child reports exposure to trauma it’s important to listen to what the child has to say, take the report seriously and initiate appropriate actions to protect and support the child,” Fairbank said.

Childhood trauma is a common experience that affects girls and boys and different racial and ethnic groups at roughly comparable rates, said Fairbank, referring to longitudinal findings from the landmark Great Smoky Mountains Study in North Carolina.

However, the likelihood of experiencing trauma rises for children whose families face adversity, such as living in poverty or with mental health problems during childhood, Fairbank said.

In the aftermath of a traumatic event, it can be difficult for children to get rest. “Poor sleep has wide ranging effects, including making it difficult to participate and learn in school. If a child has nightmares or difficulty falling or staying asleep, a parent may work with the child to build comforting rituals into bedtime routines to facilitate sleep and school performance,” Fairbank said.

If a child experiences something traumatic, seek professional help. “This is especially true if the child’s distress persists several months after the trauma. For many children, the safety of a therapeutic relationship facilitates recovery from the effects of the trauma,” Fairbank said.

Visit the National Child Traumatic Stress Network website, nctsn.org, for free tools for families and professionals.