“They’re so little, they probably won’t remember:” Misconceptions about trauma in infants and toddlers
How Does Trauma Affect a Child? Can my Baby Experience Trauma?
It is common for me to encounter a person who says “I’m glad this happened when they were a baby, so they won’t remember” or “we make sure not to talk about what happened so they forget.”
Whether it was a stay in NICU, surgery in the first year of life, a car accident, or witnessing violence, caregivers usually do not want to discuss traumatic events with with very young children. Because they want children to forget, or assume they won’t remember it because they are so little. This makes perfect sense—we want to protect our kids from these scary situations, and if they occurred before our kids could talk, then it seems like it probably won’t be remembered.
Children DO remember events that happened in infancy, but not usually in a way that they can talk to us about. Typically it’s embedded in their physiology and may come out through play behaviors, feeding, relating, or regulatory behaviors.
For example an event like a medical operation, a sudden separation from caregiver, or other event could be perceived by the infant as a life-threat. If it is, the event is recorded in the child’s brain as a traumatic memory, and research concludes that if it is still remembered after about age 2.5, children do not forget it. Sure, exact details may be blurry but they don’t forget the general event. Early childhood trauma may be stored and may come out in play themes later. This does not necessarily mean your child has PTSD (you’d see avoidance of triggers and re-experiencing on the even as if it was happening in the present) but it means your child is processing an even that was stored in the body, an event that perhaps seen as overwhelming and is unresolved. Post-traumatic play can be identified by a professional—it is repetitive, rigid, and has a different intensity than free, spontaneous play.
Child Trauma Symptoms
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.
What is Child 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 LINK: https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/trauma-types/complex-trauma, medical trauma, sexual abuse, physical abuse, refugee trauma, terrorism, violence, and traumatic grief
What About Early Childhood Trauma? Things that Happened When They Were Infants?
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.
Another fact to consider is that remembering more details about a trauma does not protect the child from developing PTSD and neither does remembering less. It is all about whether the infant or toddler perceives the event to be extremely threatening—a threat to ability to survive. Individual Differences affect how your child responds to an event! If your child is highly sensitive, has a neurodevelopmental difference, or is already a difficult-to-soothe type, they may be more likely to perceive an event as threatening. Keeping all of this in mind is important, and talking to a professional or engaging in play therapy EARLY can help resolve trauma that occurs in infancy and early childhood!
Scheeringa, M. PTSD. Handbook of Infant, Toddler, and Preschool Mental Health Assessment, edited by Rebecca DelCarmen-Wiggins, and Alice Carter, Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2004. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/psu/detail.action?docID=241579.
Levine, P. Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes