The Impact of Trauma in Early Childhood
Approximately five million children in the United States each year experience some form of trauma: that results in 1 in 4 children experiencing interpersonal or community violence by the age of eighteen. There has been undeviating analysis about childhood trauma increasing the risk of future trauma. Ongoing collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, GA, and Kaiser Permanente’s Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego, CA are collecting data on over 17,000 Kaiser patients participating in the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. Data suggests associations between childhood maltreatment and future health, social, and economic risks. Furthermore, the ACE Study reveals that certain adverse childhood experiences are the leading causes of poor health, quality of life, poor socialization skills, and death.
Some examples of adverse childhood experiences include but are not limited to: an unsecure or unstable environment; prenatal risk factors (e.g. drug exposure); separation from a parent; domestic violence; neglect; verbal, physical, or sexual abuse; bullying; serious illness; and or intrusive medical procedures. Following these repeated or one-time experience(s), children may react emotionally or psychologically. Children may be in shock, denial, or disbelief; may exhibit signs of anger, irritability, or mood swings; may feel guilt, shame, or self-blame; can develop anxiety and fear, thus withdrawing from others; can feel disconnected, numb, hopeless, or sad; and their development may be impacted. Some examples of physical symptoms include: fatigue, edginess or agitation, muscle tension, insomnia or nightmares, being easily startled, having aches and pain, and having difficulty concentrating.
According to Dr. Bruce Perry (2003), an expert on children maltreatment and traumatized children, he purports that traumatic childhood events constructs a host of risk factors including social factors (e.g. adolescent drug abuse, victimization, teenage pregnancy, school failure, and anti-social behavior), medical problems (e.g. heart disease and asthma), and neuropsychiatric disorders (e.g. stress disorder, conduct disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder).
Adaptive responses to trauma vary between each child; however, the brain automatically “mediates threat with a set of predictable neurobiological, neuroendocrine and neuropsychological responses” (Perry, 2003, p. 12). Neural systems are activated in extremely threatening situations that results in hyperarousal continuum (defense—fight or flight) and the dissociation continuum (freeze and surrender response). When the brain activates the neurophysiological systems associated with alarm or with dissociation, use-dependent neurobiological changes are activated; thus leading to emotional, cognitive, sociological, physiological, and behavioral changes following childhood trauma.
In summary, consequences of trauma may vary with each child, so it is vital explore or rule out the possibility of trauma in children exhibiting atypical behaviors. It’s important to use a child’s behavior as his or her language. If a child you know is engaging in maladaptive behaviors and you would like more support, contact the child's local regional center for behavioral support or have a pediatrician refer the family to appropriate resources.
References Perry, B. D. (2003). Effects of traumatic events on children. Retrieved from http://www.mentalhealthconnection.org/pdfs/perry-handout-effects-of-trauma.pdf