What is Trauma?
Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that can have lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional well-being.
There are three main types of trauma: Acute, Chronic, or Complex
- Acute trauma results from a single incident.
- Chronic trauma is repeated and prolonged such as domestic violence or abuse.
- Complex trauma is exposure to varied and multiple traumatic events, often of an invasive, interpersonal nature.
Early childhood trauma generally refers to the traumatic experiences that occur to children ages 0-6. Children can experience various types of trauma including:
- Natural disasters
- Sexual abuse
- Physical abuse
- Domestic violence
- Medical injury, illness, or procedures
- Community violence
- Neglect, deprivation
- Traumatic grief
- Victim of crime
- School violence
Trauma and Brain Development
Research has shown that children are particularly vulnerable to trauma because of their rapidly developing brain. During traumatic experiences, a child’s brain is in heightened state of stress and fear-related hormones are activated. Although, stress is a normal part of life, when a child is exposed to chronic trauma, like abuse or neglect, the child’s brain remains in this heightened pattern. Remaining in this heightened state can change the emotional, behavioral and cognitive functioning of the child in order to maintain and promote survival. Over time, these traumatic experiences can have a significant impact on a child’s future behavior, emotional development, mental and physical health.
Adverse Childhood Experiences Study
The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACEs) underscores the impact of trauma on physical and mental health over time.
The ACEs is one of the largest investigations ever conducted to assess associations between childhood maltreatment and later-life health and well-being. The study is a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente's Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego. More than 17,000 Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) members who underwent a comprehensive physical examination chose to provide detailed information about their childhood experience of abuse, neglect, and family dysfunction.
The study uses the ACE score, which is a total count of the number of adverse childhood experiences reported by respondents to assess the total amount of stress during childhood. The greater the number of ACEs the greater the risk for the following problems later in life including alcoholism, depression, multiple sexual partners, suicide attempts, smoking and liver disease among other negative health related issues.
Information on Assessing and Treating Children who have Experienced Trauma
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network notes that, “children suffering from traumatic stress symptoms generally have difficulty regulating their behaviors and emotions. They may be clingy and fearful of new situations, easily frightened, difficult to console, and/or aggressive or impulsive. They many have difficulty sleeping, lose recently acquired developmental skills, and show regression in functioning and behavior.”
It is essential that children who have suffered trauma be identified and treated. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has resources for mental health professionals, early childhood providers, and primary care physicians to help identify, assess, and treat children who have suffered traumatic stress.