We're not as forgetful as we make ourselves out to be. It's easy to think that we’ve moved on from a difficult situation, but the truth is, emotions that were not properly dealt with can show up in other ways, and sometimes, they don’t give us a pleasant experience.
The American Psychological Association defines trauma as "an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster." Especially to children under the age of 6, childhood trauma can be even more terrible. Traumatic events have a considerable effect on the psychology of children.
Children are very dependent on their parents or caregivers for everything they need to live and be safe, both physically and emotionally. Without parental support or guidance to help control their emotions, children are more vulnerable to experiencing stress. It can also stunt their ability to communicate their feelings or needs effectively.
Childhood trauma can happen if a child sees or experiences many bad things in their childhood. Fearful visual cues, loud noises, aggressive actions, and other unpredictable and scary sensations can disrupt their sense of security.
Childhood trauma is prevalent in the U.S. By the age of 16, more than two-thirds of children had experienced at least one traumatic event. One out of every seven children has been a victim of child abuse and neglect, and 1,840 children died due to abuse and neglect in 2019 alone.
But what exactly are the events that cause trauma to a child?
Types of Traumatic Events
Trauma is defined by a person's psychological or emotional reactions to the event, ranging from confusion to emotional numbness, bodily arousal, and agitation. As trauma research has progressed, we can now divide trauma into two categories: big T and little t.
Little t trauma consists of stressful experiences beyond a child's ability to manage on their own. It can affect their emotional functioning but doesn’t always result in life-threatening or bodily harm. Examples include:
- Death of a pet
- Fight with a friend
- Emotional and physical neglect
- Verbal abuse
It's easy to overlook little t traumatic events, as they aren't easy to recognize. Since these traumatic events are so common, they might as well be normal, and so people dismiss them. Instead of evaluating how these events can affect a person's well-being, there’s a tendency to judge a person's reaction as “dramatic.”
While these experiences do not endanger a child's safety, they can cause distress, unhappiness, and helplessness over one's life. These emotions can cause some of the same symptoms as big T trauma, albeit usually milder.
Big T traumas are major, life-threatening events that leave a person feeling helpless or hopeless. They can easily be identified as the root of the trauma because they make a person feel out of control over the situation. They are the typical traumatic events that we think of:
- Natural disasters
- Severe injury
- A serious car or plane accident
- Sexual assault
- Violent crimes
While big T traumas are more widely recognized, research reports that continuous exposure to little t traumas causes more emotional damage than a single exposure to a big T trauma.
Effects of Childhood Trauma
Childhood trauma can manifest in different ways. Children can react differently due to their age, cultural background, previous trauma, available resources, and existing family problems. It's common to show signs of distress or behavior changes after the traumatic event, but childhood trauma can have short-term and long-term effects.
Short-term effects of childhood trauma include:
- Guilt and shame
- Low self-esteem
- Lack of focus
- Learning problems at school
- Development of new fears
The effects of childhood trauma can make it hard to interact with adults, siblings, and other kids. They might get into trouble at school, home, or with the law. These problems only add to the weight of the traumatic event.
Long-term effects of childhood trauma include:
- Substance and alcohol abuse
- Self-destructive or risky behaviors
- Trust issues
- Difficulty maintaining healthy relationships
- Possible development of serious mental illness like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse disorder, major depressive disorder, and anxiety disorder, to name a few
- Higher risk for physical health problems like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer
If children are not given a chance to talk through their feelings and heal from their childhood trauma, they may find themselves in a state of survival mode, which can manifest as childhood trauma in adults later on. Because of this, developing the skills necessary to become a happy and well-adjusted adult becomes far more challenging as a child. Hence, it's important to learn how to deal with childhood trauma.
Coping Strategies for Healing Trauma
Learning how to deal with past childhood trauma is imperative to healing from negative experiences. The steps below are some coping strategy tips on how to heal from childhood trauma:
- Acknowledge the trauma: Many childhood trauma victims spend years denying that it happened or blame themselves for it, which can lead to feelings of guilt or self-blame. Healing cannot begin unless you admit that a terrible event occurred and that you aren’t to blame for it.
- Be physically active: Childhood trauma changes your body's natural balance, leaving you in a state of anxiety and fear. Physical exercises can help your nervous system get better by burning off the nervous energy and releasing happy hormones.
- Be in control: Feelings of helplessness from childhood trauma can stay throughout adulthood. It can make you feel and act like a victim, prompting you to make decisions based on your past. Childhood trauma victims let their past control their present situation. But by overcoming the pain caused by your childhood trauma, you are in control of the present moment.
- Don't isolate, go outside: People who have been through childhood trauma have an instinct to stay away from other people, but this will only make things worse. To help you get better, you should keep your relationships strong and avoid spending too much time on your own. Speak openly with a trusted family member or friend, or consider joining a support group for childhood trauma victims.
- Look after your physical health: Being healthy helps you handle stress better. Incorporate enough sleep, a healthy diet, and regular exercise into your daily routine. Above all, avoid alcohol and substances. The momentary comfort can only enhance your feelings of sadness, anxiety, and isolation, and can aggravate your traumatic symptoms.
Professional Treatments for Childhood Trauma
Overcoming childhood trauma can be done in different ways, but getting treated through therapy is still the best way on how to deal with childhood trauma. If you don't deal with these issues now, adverse effects will build up and come out later, often with more severity. A mental health professional specializing in childhood trauma might use a variety of therapeutic approaches in your childhood trauma therapy session.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
The most widely practiced therapeutic approach is CBT. It is a useful treatment for reducing childhood trauma symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. A type of CBT, trauma-focused treatment, allows the childhood trauma victim to process their painful experience in a safe and judgment-free environment with a therapist.
CBT assists childhood trauma victims in transforming negative behaviors, emotions, and thoughts into positive solutions. The parents or caregivers of the childhood trauma victim are also encouraged to participate in simultaneous individual sessions to express their views about the child's traumatic experience and learn techniques to help regulate their trauma responses. CBT often takes 8–25 sessions.
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
EDMR therapy is a type of psychotherapy that aims to change how the traumatic event is stored in the brain. Through repetitive eye movements, EDMR reconnects the childhood trauma victim to the thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations linked with the trauma in a safe environment. This treatment has been shown to help lessen the negative effects of childhood trauma. EMDR usually takes 6 to 12 sessions to complete.
Exposure therapy helps the childhood trauma victim gradually come to terms with thoughts, feelings, and situations related to the traumatic event instead of avoiding them. Exposure therapy may appear counterproductive because it requires the victim to relive the traumatic events, yet research shows that it is beneficial in helping victims cope with their traumas.
Through repeated exposure, the person can process the trauma in new ways and minimize its power over their life. Exposure therapy takes place over 15 weeks.
Seeking mental health treatment can be intimidating. Most people are afraid of not knowing what to say to their therapist or what will happen during the therapy session, making them hesitant about seeking help.
Several studies have demonstrated that online counseling can help people with anxiety and depression symptoms. It's no surprise that online therapy is becoming more popular than in-person treatment these days. Online therapy is accessible from anywhere, is more affordable, and makes communication easier for those who prefer to do it online.
The scars caused by childhood trauma may not always be visible, but the painful experience can leave a lasting emotional and psychological impact. When we experience a terrible situation, the damage can stay with us for a long time. Without therapy, it can affect our mental and physical health throughout our life.
The most wonderful thing you can do for yourself is to seek help from a mental health professional. Start your mental wellness journey by scheduling a childhood trauma therapy session with DoMental today.