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Childhood Trauma Effects and Treatment

Dr. Yvette Stupart is a clinical counselor and educator. She gives insights on how to experience emotional health and relational well-being.

Trauma in childhood could have severe and long-lasting effects on the child's life..

Trauma in childhood could have severe and long-lasting effects on the child's life..

Impact of Childhood Trauma

Clinical psychologist, Dr. Tian Dayton, in her book, The ACOA Trauma Syndrome, The Impact of Childhood Pain on Adult Relationships, explains the science behind various types of trauma and the impact on children even into their adulthood.

Traumatic events have a shattering effect on children and negatively impact their social, physical, cognitive, and emotional development. Trauma is an event more devastating than a person normally would be expected to experience. This psychic trauma occurs as a result of overwhelming, terrifying external events over which the child has no control.

According to Dr Bruce D. Perry, traumatic events during childhood could result in many problems. These include:

  • Social problems such as teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, and failure at school
  • Psychological effects of childhood trauma, including, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), dissociative disorder, and conduct disorder
  • Medical problems, such as heart disease and asthma

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) develops in response to specific extreme stresses and results in symptoms such as intrusive memories of the traumatic events, emotional withdrawal, and increased autonomic arousal. Children usually present a mix of intrusive and avoidant symptoms. The most common intrusive symptom is a nightmare that the child sometimes cannot remember. In terms of avoidance symptoms, typically children resist attempts to talk about the events of the trauma and may appear withdrawn and cautious.

Some children are exposed to multiple or chronic traumatic experiences, such as childhood physical or sexual abuse, or being raised in a war zone or violent neighborhood. It seems that children become emotionally numb, and appear detached with no feelings. Also, in many cases, children try to stop thinking about the traumatic experience.

Factors Contributing to Childhood Trauma

When a child experiences trauma, it disrupts his or her sense of safety and could leave a long-lasting impact. In the United States, about 5 million children experience some form of trauma each year. Factors and events that are traumatic to children include:

  • Unsafe environment
  • Separation from a parent
  • Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse
  • Domestic violence
  • Natural disasters
  • Life-threatening medical procedures
  • Serious illness
  • Exposure to violence in the community
  • Parental neglect - physically or emotionally

Childhood PTSD Factors and Symptoms

The body has set responses to threats, and one common response is called the “flight or fight” reaction. The experience of trauma induces an intense and prolonged stress response. When a child experiences trauma, he no longer feels that the world is safe, thus the activated survival response continues. The body is in a constant state of "fight or flight" which could result in PTSD symptoms.

Children and teens could suffer from PTSD if they have experienced traumatic events such as sexual and physical abuse, disaster including floods, and school shootings. Factors like the severity of the trauma, lack of support system, and children's proximity to the trauma could increase their chance of suffering from PTSD.

Kronenberger & Meyer (2001) explain that while children with PTSD show many similarities in behavior, there are some differences based on the child’s personality and the type of trauma that is experienced. Children exposed to a single traumatic episode retain detailed intrusive memories of the event, which could affect their level of functioning in various areas including school.

The symptoms of PTSD in children and teens may not be the same as in adults. For children who are very young, the symptoms may include bed-wetting, forgetting how to talk, and being unusually clingy to their parents. However, the symptoms might be the same as in adults for older children and teens. In addition, children and teens may develop disrespectful and disruptive behaviors, which may reflect the overwhelming effects of intrusive symptoms.

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PTSD Appearance and Features

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that develops in response to psychological and physical trauma. Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms usually start within three months of a traumatic event. However, in few cases, PTSD symptoms may not appear until years after the event. The symptoms are grouped into three categories:

Re-experiencing symptoms (intrusive memories)

  • Flashbacks, or reliving the traumatic events over and over
  • Upsetting thoughts and dreams about the traumatic event

Avoidance symptoms

  • Avoiding thoughts, places, objects and events associated with the traumatic event
  • Feelings of emotional numbness
  • Avoiding or losing interest in activities that were once enjoyable

Hyperarousal symptoms

  • Being easily startled or frightened
  • Having angry outbursts
  • Experiencing difficulty sleeping
  • Self-destructive behavior
  • Feelings of guilt and shame

Other signs common of PTSD in children include sleep problems, nightmares, exaggerated startle response, panic, and immature or regressed behavior,

Natural disasters such as floods can have traumatic effect on children.

Natural disasters such as floods can have traumatic effect on children.

Contributing Factors and Effects of Childhood Trauma

Some Contributing FactorsImpact of Childhood TraumaFeatures of PTSD

Violent and unsafe environment

Social problems such as teenage pregnancies and drug abuse

Reliving the traumatic event

Parental separation from child

Psychological problems such as PTSD

Avoiding things that are associated with the traumatic events

Physical and sexual abuse

Medical problems such as heart disease

Feelings of numbness

Natural disasters such as floods

Disrespectful or disruptive behavior

Easily frightened

Serous illnesses or intrusive medical procedures

Mentally separating self from the experience

Difficulty sleeping

Get Help!

If you suspect that your child may be suffering from trauma be sure to get him or her assessed and treated promptly by a trained mental health professional.

Psychological Assessment Strategies

Administration of psychological testing assesses the presence and strength of PTSD symptoms. Before treating PTSD, there are several tests that are administered to children and adolescents including the following:

  • Cognitive assessment, for example, administering a Wechsler Scale could suggest the degree to which some abilities have been affected by PTSD symptoms.
  • Psychological assessment, such as MMPI (for adolescents) and projective personality tests like Rorschach.
  • Behavioral assessment, such as, Parental and Teacher Reports and Child Report may be useful in identifying features associated with PTSD
  • Syndrome-specific tests, such as Post-Traumatic Disorder Rating Scales, and the Trauma system Checklist for Children (Kronenberger & Meyer, 2001).

Treating PTSD in Children

PTSD that results from childhood trauma could severely impact the functioning of children, in their childhood and as adults, so early treatment is very important.

1. Cognitive-behavioral Therapy (CBT)

According to the National Center for PTSD, CBT is the most effective method to treat children with PTSD. Specifically, trauma-focused CBT, helps the children to talk about their memories of the trauma. Cognitive-behavioral interventions are used to teach children techniques such as relaxation and cognitive restructuring to deal with intrusive thoughts. Cognitive restructuring techniques also help children to adopt new thoughts and feelings about the trauma.

CBT also uses psycho-education strategies to teach children and their parents about PTSD. An understanding of the disorder helps both child and parent to know what to expect, and so they are better able to deal with the symptoms.

2. Behavioral Interventions

Usually, gradual exposure to the stimuli associated with the trauma is used to treat children with PTSD. In addition, parents are instructed to provide structure in the lives of children to give them a sense of normalcy. To achieve this, children need clearly defined boundaries and roles. This also gives the children a sense of competence, and feelings of belonging they need.

3. Play Therapy

Non-directive play is usually used with young children to help to treat PTSD. In a safe and structured environment, the child reenacts the traumatic event, using games, drawings, and other methods. This allows children to process their thoughts, and feelings about the traumatic event.

3. Medication

In some cases, medication is prescribed to treat symptoms such as depression and anxiety. This could include anti-depressants such as imipramine and anxiety-reducing medication such as lorazepam. These could help children to cope better in school and in other activities.

It is critical to ensure that children receive early and effective intervention for trauma.

It is critical to ensure that children receive early and effective intervention for trauma.

Key Points On Childhood Trauma

Worldwide, many children are severely impacted by events such as sexual and physical abuse, natural disasters such as hurricanes, and life-threatening medical procedures. When they experience traumatic events in childhood, this could impact all areas of functioning including the emotional, social, and cognitive domains.

Psychological disorders including PTSD could develop following such traumatic events. This disorder is characterized by re-experiencing, avoidance, and hyper-arousal symptoms. Early intervention is essential, and a number of treatments are available including CBT which utilizes various techniques to reduce children's anxieties.

References and Further Reading

Kronenberger, W. G. & Meyer, R. G. (2001). The child clinician’s handbook (2nd ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Mayo Clinic (2013). Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Accessed June 20, 2013.

National Institute of Mental health (n.d.). What is post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD? Accessed June 19, 2013.

National Center for PTSD (2012). PTSD in children and teens. Accessed June 20, 2013.

Perry, B. D. (2003). The effects of traumatic events on children. Accessed June 19, 2013..

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Yvette Stupart PhD

Join in the conversation ...

jordana on July 16, 2018:

Yes childhood trauma is big in every aspect of their life. We have to qualify the periods PTSD happen..I know that there are many people have PTSD but keep functioning ..._Perhaps we can all discuss strategies that can help people of all ages. I know several that help some but I guess it depends on the depth of the scars

Yvette Stupart PhD (author) from Jamaica on June 17, 2014:

Thanks for commenting Ludovick. A number of events and factors can lead to childhood trauma, and it is important that chidren received early intervention.

Ludovick on June 17, 2014:

am very happy today because am well understood about PSTD and what kind of therapy to use when I got clients suffering with that kind of Disorder

Yvette Stupart PhD (author) from Jamaica on December 23, 2013:

Thanks Gail. I'm glad you found my hub useful, and I appreciate you sharing it.

Gail Meyers from Johnson County, Kansas on December 20, 2013:

This is a very well written, informative and useful hub. I am going to include it as a reference for additional reading in one of my own hubs. I love to see qualified professionals get this information out there in user friendly formats. Voted up!

Yvette Stupart PhD (author) from Jamaica on June 23, 2013:

Hi ZaidenJace, thanks for stopping by. That's it, because children are in their early stage of development, traumatic events can have a devastating effect on their functioning in all areas of their lives. In fact, this could increase their risk for further trauma in the future. That is why early intervention when children experience trauma, is so very important.

Zaiden Jace from Oregon on June 22, 2013:

That was very insightful. It is so horrible for children to experience traumatic events when they are in such a vulnerable state in there developmental process. Especially when it leads to more hardships later in life. It's rough enough out there without having your past haunt you.

Yvette Stupart PhD (author) from Jamaica on June 22, 2013:

Krillco, I checked out your hub, and commented. I find the "gentling" approach to the treatment of PTSD in children interesting, and I will need to do further reading on it.

William E Krill Jr from Hollidaysburg, PA on June 22, 2013:

I will suggest your article to my readers...and mine may be helpful to yours.

Jean Bakula from New Jersey on June 22, 2013:

Yes, I suppose that's true. Children change so much in even a short amount of time, some parents may just think it's a rough patch or a faze of bad behavior the child will outgrow.

Yvette Stupart PhD (author) from Jamaica on June 22, 2013:

Thanks for your comments Jean. PTSD and autism are just two of a wide range mental health conditions that children struggle with. The responsibility to get help for these children starts with their parents. Sadly, many children who could benefit from treatment don't get the help they need. One reason for this is that parents are not able to identify that their children might have mental health concerns to seek professional help.

Jean Bakula from New Jersey on June 21, 2013:

Very well written and researched. My son is the "permanent Substitute" in a school paying his dues until he gets a job teaching Kindergarten or 1st grade. There are so many children with all kinds of problems, autism and PTSD. We wondered if maybe it's because parents are having children at older ages, and if the eggs and sperm are older, there is a higher probability of having a special needs child. Many of the children are sent to school with no lunch, like the parents don't even care. Then it becomes the school's problem. I can't believe the stories of the behaviors of some of these students, some is so sad. People need to take mental illness more seriously, and also be alert to any changes in their children's behaviors. They have to work together with the school system.

Yvette Stupart PhD (author) from Jamaica on June 21, 2013:

Thank you ChitrangadaSharan. With so many negative things happening in the world, these are impacting children and teens in a marked way. We need to be sensitive to their needs, and knowledgeable of the steps to take to help them cope and thrive.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on June 21, 2013:

This is a wonderful hub covering a very important aspect of child psychology. Your explanation and solutions are very well presented and quite well researched.

Thanks for sharing this useful hub!

Voted up!

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