When an experience is so stressful for a child that it overwhelms her ability to cope, that experience is considered traumatic. Infants and young children are most vulnerable to the effects of trauma. Responses to trauma are physical, emotional and spiritual and may be brief or long lasting. Drugs and alcohol may be used to numb the emotional pain of the experience(s) beginning in adolescence, eventually leading to addiction.
Traumatic events that occur during childhood may or may not be remembered in the conscious mind but still affect neurodevelopment and behavior. Subclinical depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias and other psychosocial effects may persist even after the traumatic experience is forgotten. There is a wide body of research showing that childhood trauma is a risk factor for the development of substance use disorders, particularly for females.
Children who have been exposed to multiple traumatic events of an invasive and interpersonal nature can develop complex trauma. Complex trauma interferes with identity development, the ability to have healthy relationships and can cause dissociative disorders. In adulthood, women with complex trauma often have chronic mental and physical illnesses, substance use or eating disorders. Sometimes they simply feel stuck in patterns of behavior that hold them back from achieving their goals.
What Makes An Experience Traumatic?
Traumatic experiences during childhood usually have a profound and lifelong impact, for better or for worse. After traumatic experiences, some people become more resilient to stress and trauma and use the experience to make positive changes in themselves and the world around them. Others develop emotional upset that overwhelms their ability to cope, resulting in acute or post-traumatic stress disorder and possibly other mental illnesses or behavioral problems.
How people respond to stress is not a choice, but a compilation of risk and protective factors that determine perception and reaction. Factors about the individual, her environment and the type of stressful experience(s) determine whether or not the experience will be perceived as traumatic and how the experience will influence feelings and behaviors thereafter.
Individual factors include inherited traits, past experiences and lifestyle. Environmental factors include things like family cohesiveness, interpersonal relationships and community characteristics. Factors related to the stressful event(s) include duration of the event, repetition of the event, whether actual or threat of physical injury occurred and other conditions.
Over two thirds of children in the U.S. report experiencing at least one trauma by age 16. Childhood trauma can occur from many types of experiences, but a few examples include:
- Physical, sexual or emotional maltreatment
- Parental substance abuse or discord
- Medical illness or surgery
- Actual or threat of bodily harm
- Exposure to violence
- Ritual abuse
- Witnessing a violent crime or accident
- A natural disaster
No child has coping mechanisms strong enough to endure neglect and maltreatment without trauma, especially when the abuser is a parent or trusted caregiver. Such survivors are the most likely to have emotional effects and behavioral symptoms that may persist into adulthood. However, more subtle types of trauma can also lead to lasting effects.