Childhood trauma 101: What you need to know

Many of us are familiar with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the devastating impact it has on veterans returning from combat. We don’t hear as much about the impact trauma has on kids and teens. Yet the National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports one in four kids will experiences some sort of trauma before the age of 18. And trauma can rear its ugly head in all sorts of ways.

What is trauma, exactly?

Simply put, trauma is any sort of scary, stressful experience that involves the fear of losing one’s life or one’s way of life. It’s a subjective experience that depends entirely on the person’s perception of what happened.

When I explain PTSD to families, I break it down into its core parts:

Post = After
Traumatic = A scary event
Stress = The body’s alarm system that tells you something’s wrong
Disorder = Something that gets in the way

For kids and adults, PTSD means that their body’s alarm system (stress response) is in overdrive and gets in the way of them succeeding in school, enjoying their friends, or getting along at home.

What kinds of events can be traumatic for kids?

Any experience that an adult might find traumatic could also be traumatic for a child. Some common types of trauma include:

  • Serious car accident
  • Scary or painful medical procedure
  • The sudden or violent death of a loved one
  • Witnessing domestic violence
  • Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse
  • Natural disaster

What does PTSD in kids look like?

Hyperarousal = high energy

Remember how stress is the body’s alarm system when something’s threatening us? For some kids, the alarm system gets them worked up, with their body entering “fight” or “flight” mode. A pounding heart, shallow breathing, and tense muscles prepare the body to fight the perceived danger or get away from it. Here’s what that can look like:

At school:

  • Getting out of their seat numerous times throughout the day
  • Having trouble concentrating
  • Finding ways to leave the classroom
  • Getting into verbal or physical fights
  • Trying to avoid going to school
  • Physical ailments like stomach aches, headaches, and muscle pain

At home:

  • Temper tantrums
  • Not following directions
  • Getting upset easily
  • Crying spells
Parents and teachers may see a child who is defiant and can’t follow the rules. What they don’t see is how the child’s body is telling their mind that they need to act to protect themselves.

Hypoarousal = low energy

For other kids, the opposite happens: they go into “freeze” mode, where their body and mind shut down to protect them from danger. Here’s how that plays out:

At school:

  • Daydreaming, the inability to focus
  • Withdrawing from other kids
  • Seeming to not listen
  • Memory problems

At home:

  • No longer enjoying activities they once loved
  • Seeming to “check out” throughout the day
  • Inability to perform tasks they used to do (like tying their shoes or taking care of themselves)
  • Nightmares

What you can do

If your child experienced a scary or stressful event and you notice a change in their behavior, it’s a good idea to rule out a trauma reaction. This can be done by completing an assessment with a trauma therapist. The great news is that trauma treatment early in life has been found to reduce the symptoms that could otherwise linger into adulthood.

Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) is a type of talk therapy that has proven to be extremely effective in treating childhood trauma. This therapy draws on the elements of CBT used to treat depression and anxiety (aka sadness and worry) in kids.

One of the great things about TF-CBT is that it’s a component based therapy, making it concise and structured. It’s also a lot of fun: kids and their families work together to learn new skills through games, activities, art, and sensory engagement. Many families enjoy knowing where the therapy is going and watching their progress.

The best thing a parent or teacher can do for a kid who has been through trauma is to understand that the behaviors are not the child’s fault. Instead of asking, “what’s wrong with this kid?” ask, “what happened to this kid?” That simple change can make a world of difference for a child who so needs the understanding and compassion of the adults in their lives.