Childhood Trauma

Learn more about trauma in childhood and how to treat symptoms. Photo by  Evie Shaffer  on  Unsplash

Learn more about trauma in childhood and how to treat symptoms. Photo by Evie Shaffer on Unsplash


What is Childhood Trauma?

A traumatic event can be any event that is perceived by the individual as overwhelming and a threat to safety. Trauma is stored in the body and re-experieneced as post-traumatic stress when the experience of the trauma is not resolved--that is, when the child perceives that they are powerless to overcome it. Typical types of child trauma including community violence, bullying, disasters, complex trauma, medical trauma, sexual abuse, physical abuse, refugee trauma, terrorism, violence, and traumatic grief.

What about an event that occurs in infancy?

Research shows that even infants are affected by and can remember events that threaten their sense of safety. A response such as PTSD following a traumatic event is not about the event itself, it is a result of the perception of powerlessness that was sensed by the infant. This could include sexual abuse, witnessing violence, physical neglect, or emotional abuse. But traumas also include unintentionally harmful events such as as a natural disaster, parental separation, witness to violence, or even medical interventions in infancy or early childhood.


Symptoms of Traumatic Stress in Children

Children may feel terror, helplessness, or fear, as well as physiological reactions such as heart pounding, vomiting, or loss of bowel or bladder control. Children who experience an inability to protect themselves or who lacked protection from others to avoid the consequences of the traumatic experience may also feel overwhelmed by the intensity of physical and emotional responses.

Types of Treatment for Childhood Trauma


Research indicates that very young children who have experienced one of the above events or shows signs of PTSD can “play out” the narrative of the trauma through play, and can integrate and heal from the experience through structured play therapy!

When working with a child who has experienced a trauma, I utilize, when appropriate, the core interventions defined by the NCTSN:

The core components of trauma-focused interventions include:

  • Motivational interviewing (to engage clients)

  • Risk screening (to identify high-risk clients)

  • Triage to different levels and types of intervention (to match clients to the interventions that will most likely benefit them/they need)

  • Systematic assessment, case conceptualization, and treatment planning (to tailor intervention to the needs, strengths, circumstances, and wishes of individual clients)

  • Engagement/addressing barriers to service-seeking (to ensure clients receive an adequate dosage of treatment in order to make sufficient therapeutic gains)

  • Psychoeducation about trauma reminders and loss reminders (to strengthen coping skills)

  • Psychoeducation about posttraumatic stress reactions and grief reactions (to strengthen coping skills)

  • Teaching emotional regulation skills (to strengthen coping skills)

  • Maintaining adaptive routines (to promote positive adjustment at home and at school)

  • Parenting skills and behavior management (to improve parent-child relationships and to improve child behavior)

  • Constructing a trauma narrative (to reduce posttraumatic stress reactions)

  • Teaching safety skills (to promote safety)

  • Advocacy on behalf of the client (to improve client support and functioning at school, in the juvenile justice system, and so forth)

  • Teaching relapse prevention skills (to maintain treatment gains over time)

  • Monitoring client progress/response during treatment (to detect and correct insufficient therapeutic gains in timely ways)

  • Evaluating treatment effectiveness (to ensure that treatment produces changes that matter to clients and other stakeholders, such as the court system)

    What We Know About Child Trauma

    Chronic exposure to traumatic experiences change the brain and nervous system, and, if untreated, increase behaviors such as smoking, eating disorders, substance use, and other high-risk activities as well as long-term health problems such as diabetes or autoimmune disorders . Adults who experienced trauma in childhood also are more likely to access mental health services, be involved in child welfare or juvenile justice systems, or have difficulty keeping a job. Learn more here!

    Many parents tell me “They were just a baby when it happened, they won’t remember” or “I’m trying not to talk about it so they forget it ever happened.” This is well-intentioned! We don’t want our kids to feel pain, or relive horrifying experiences! But research does show that children can remember events that happen to them and often attempt to resolve traumas through play and talk. A big change in the family, an injury, medical procedure, or loss can all cause traumatic stress or symptoms of PTSD. If you think your child may need a professional to connect with about a traumatic experience, reach out! Find someone who is skilled in working with children in a play-based, neurobiologically informed model, and get your child help!

    But there is also a whole pool of research on resilience and protective factors ! A relationship with a safe person, access to creative arts, a community, or alternative school are just a few things that we are discovering provide protection from trauma. Just because you or you child has experienced trauma, does not mean your outcomes will be negative! The fact that you are here on this website shows you want to heal, you want to get better, and perhaps you are ready to make a relationship with someone who can point you on a path to healing.

    See the National Child Traumatic Stress Network for more on types of trauma, effects, and research. https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/trauma-types/early-childhood-trauma