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Mental Health Matters

Childhood Trauma/Developmental Trauma

Developmental trauma occurs when a child’s sense of safety is violated. Events that can cause trauma include:

  • Witnessing domestic violence
  • Sexual, physical, or verbal abuse
  • Neglect or an unsafe environment
  • Oppressions experienced being a minority (i.e. homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism, ableism, etc.)
  • Separation from a parent
  • Serious illness
  • Invasive medical procedures
  • Being bullied

Children who experience trauma can suffer severe and long-lasting effects if it is not resolved. They can develop feelings of fear and helplessness that linger well into adulthood, making them vulnerable to further trauma.

Early childhood trauma refers to events that occur to children aged 0–6. The reactions of infants and young children to trauma may be exhibited differently than in older children. Although they may not be able to verbalize their fear in threatening or dangerous situations, they still can experience trauma. Adults sometimes assume that being very young insulates children from the impact of traumatic experiences—but this is not the case.

Signs & Symptoms

Children suffering from traumatic stress may exhibit a broad variety of symptoms such as the following:

  • Be easily frightened or fearful of new situations
  • Be clingy or difficult to console 
  • Have trouble regulating their behaviors and emotions 
  • Be aggressive and impulsive 
  • Have difficulty sleeping 
  • Lose recent gains in developmental skills, or show regression in functioning and behavior

Traumatic events can profoundly impact young children’s sense of safety. They may be terrified by threatening visual stimuli, loud noises, unexpected movements and other unpredictable sensory experiences. They can develop nightmares and new fears, or obsessively relive the traumatic event. Because they do not yet grasp the relationship between cause and effect, young children believe that their thoughts and fears are real and can make things happen. Young children are unable to sense danger or know how to keep themselves safe, and are especially vulnerable to trauma.

  • Young children experience trauma at rates similar to those of older children. In one study of children aged 2–5, more than half (52.5 percent) had experienced a traumatic event in their lifetime. 
  • Th•e most common forms of trauma in young children include: accidents, physical trauma, abuse, neglect, and exposure to domestic and community violence.

Tips & Recommendations

Here are some common effects of trauma and ways to help your child cope with them:

  • Guilt - Children younger than the age of eight tend to believe if something bad happens, it must be their fault. Help your child understand that he or she did not cause the negative event.
  • Sleep disorders –They may have difficulty falling asleep, awaken frequently or have unsettling dreams. Ease into bedtime by reading together or doing quiet activities. Give your child a soft blanket, stuffed animal or flashlight to take to bed. Keep in mind that it can take some time before your child can sleep through the night again.
  • Feeling helpless – Help your child feel less like a victim. Encourage him or her to write thank you letters to people who have helped, such as emergency responders. Empower your child to become active in campaigns to prevent an adverse event from happening again. By being proactive and forging ahead in a positive manner, you can foster a sense of healing, hope and control in your child.
  • Regression – It is not unusual for children to regress to an earlier stage when they felt safer. Younger children may resume sucking their thumb, wet the bed or want a bottle. Older children may be clingy or afraid of being alone. However regression exhibits, be patient and comforting when your child responds this way.

 Marriage and Family Therapists (MFTS) can help your child manage his or her feelings and cope with behaviors following a traumatic event.

 Additional Resources

National Child Traumatic Stress Network

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network: Early Childhood Trauma 

1  Egger, H., & Angold, A. (2004). Stressful life events and PTSD in preschool children. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry,Washington, DC.)


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