Children who have experienced intense events that threatened their safety, harmed them, or children who witnessed someone close to them harmed or threatened with harm, can have different needs than a child who has not suffered trauma. Trauma includes:
- Being abused or witnessing abuse
- Being neglected
- Suffering from the effects of poverty- such as hunger or not having a stable home
- Losing loved ones
- Being in an accident
- Experiencing a natural disaster
- Living in a household with substance abuse or mental illness
As individuals in a society where the U.S. Department of Human Health and Services (USDHHS) estimates 2/3 of children will suffer from at least one traumatic event before age 16, it is our duty to inform ourselves on the impacts of trauma for the children in our communities. When you see what you may deem misconduct, get curious. Stop and ask yourself why that child is responding that way.
Trauma causes children’s brains to release chemicals that overwhelm children’s ability to cope with stressful situations. The more often a child’s brain deals with the stress of trauma, the more the trauma changes the child’s responses to stimuli and perceptions of their worlds. Trauma changes a child’s brain development. Also, the younger children are when they experience trauma, the greater the impact on their brains. According to USDHHS, contrary to popular belief, infants and toddlers retain “sense memories” of trauma that affects them even when they are adults.
The bodies of children who have experienced trauma adapt to help them survive. They develop a heightened survival instinct that can kick in even in times when they are safe. Their bodies don’t recognize the difference between the g=dangerous stimuli they were experiencing, and the safer triggers. Children who have experienced trauma can act out aggressively and hit, kick, bite or exhibit other physical behaviors. They can be distrusting of, and so, disobedient to adults. They can even disconnect from reality at times.
The effects of trauma can be undone. But it takes time, patience, and understanding. In order to improve the outcomes for children who have experienced trauma, parents, teachers, caregivers, and society need to work with the children to re-train their bodies to recognize the differences between dangerous and safe situations and provide them with proper coping and self-regulation skills. Bystanders have a tendency to label these children as “bad,” or “mean,” when in reality they are struggling and need our empathy and understanding.
Caregivers of children who have experienced trauma must react differently to their children’s triggers and responses. Children who have experienced trauma are often distrusting of caregivers. So, caregivers need to provide greater attention, comfort, and encouragement to build trust with their children. This can look like getting drinks or food for children who may be able to get it themselves to show caring, or increased affection and quality time.
Caregivers of children who have experienced trauma need to remember that their children’s reactions are not personal. Children who have experienced traumatic events have a heightened stress response that they often cannot control. They need guidance to learn how to properly name and express their emotions. Help them learn affirmations, breathing techniques, and tools to calm themselves when they have big emotions.
Children who have suffered from trauma do not react well to physical punishments. A child who has experienced harm or abuse will likely be triggered by any physical altercations with their caregivers. Something as simple as grabbing a child’s arm or blocking a child’s path can trigger them. Caregivers can set limits with their children that are appropriate and consistent. Try using praise as an incentive for the desired reactions and behaviors.
Trauma is a large part of many children’s lives in our communities. We are better parents and humans for learning the science behind trauma and how to help our children properly heal so they can heal our communities from the inside.