IN PARTNERSHIP W/ REFLECTION IN ACTION COUNSELING AND CONSULTATION (DONNA RICHARDS, LMFT) DYM OFFERS A HOLISTIC APPROACH CONNECTING SUPPORT SERVICES TO FAMILIES AND CHILDREN WITH ADVERSE CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES!
Trauma knows no boundaries; it can be experienced by any individual at any time without regard to age, race, gender, or socioeconomic status. It’s estimated that 1 out of every 4 children have been exposed to trauma in some capacity, so it’s likely that you will be working with children and families that have experienced or are currently experiencing trauma. Exposure to trauma presents significant concerns for children during crucial developmental stages and can have an impact on their cognitive, social, physical, and emotional development. In this lesson, you will explore various types of trauma and how it may impact the children with whom you work.
Take a moment to think about a time that you have struggled when working with a child. Perhaps the child was irritable, wasn’t paying attention, or argued and fought with other children. Think about how a child that exhibits these behaviors can be labeled as a “difficult child” or a “bad kid” and how that label can influence the way they think or feel about themselves, their abilities, and how others view them.
As a caregiver, you play an important role in shaping a child’s initial experiences outside of the home environment. While it can be difficult to work with a child that exhibits challenging behaviors, it’s important to take a step back and consider other factors that may be contributing to the behaviors you experience in your settings. For more information about working with children that exhibit challenging behaviors, review the Virtual Lab School Focused Topics course, Supporting Children with Challenging Behaviors.
Recently, you may have read about or heard the term “trauma-informed care” or “trauma-sensitive schools.” Trauma-informed care is especially relevant for individuals working with young children. The federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines “trauma-informed care” as an approach that is grounded in understanding and responding to the impact of trauma in a way which focuses on the strengths of the survivor and prioritizes the physical, psychological, and emotional safety for all involved
Trauma-informed care seeks to help survivors of trauma feel safe and secure in their settings and to encourage and construct opportunities for survivors to rebuild a sense of control and empowerment in their lives. In order to incorporate a trauma-informed approach, it’s necessary to understand trauma and how survivors of trauma may process their experiences.
SAMHSA defines trauma as a single event, a series of events, or a set of circumstances that have a lasting and harmful effect on an individual’s functioning and overall well-being. Approximately 1 out of every 4 children in the United States have experienced at least one form of trauma, which suggests that trauma is a common experience for young children. These statistics reveal that you will inevitably be working with children, families, or communities that have endured or are currently enduring trauma.
The following are just some of the possible traumatic experiences that young children may experience, according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network:
We may think of trauma as affecting an individual child or family, however, it’s important to consider trauma that occurs on a community level. The Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute says that whole communities endure trauma through experiences of oppression, racial discrimination, pervasive poverty, or neighborhood violence. Because trauma occurs at these various levels and in a multitude of environments, trauma-informed care is starting to appear in areas such as the criminal justice system, schools, and health-care settings.
Another assumption we may have regarding trauma is that it occurs as a single, one-time event that a survivor has witnessed or experienced. However, trauma is complicated and can be experienced in several ways. Trauma can be acute, appearing as a single one-time event such as a home burglary or a serious car accident, or it can be chronic, occurring repetitively and over an extended period of time. Chronic trauma may include exposure to war, repetitively witnessing community violence, or extended displacement from a natural disaster.
Complex trauma adds an additional layer to traumatic experiences and is considered to be especially invasive and disruptive to a child’s development. Complex trauma consists of varied and multiple traumas and often stems from experiences with trusted caregivers in early childhood. Children that have been neglected, or emotionally, sexually, or physically abused may be dealing with complex trauma.
Complex trauma can be especially harmful for young children because it occurs within the caregiving system, or with the individual that is supposed to be a source of safety and stability in a child’s life. Complex trauma in early childhood can interfere with a child’s ability to form a secure attachment to a caregiver. Attachment theory suggests that children’s early experiences with their primary caregivers are critical and have a lasting impact on children’s lives (Bowlby, 1969). Children that struggle to form a positive secure attachment to their caregivers within the first few years of life due to complex trauma may have difficulties forming healthy intimate relationships or establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries in adulthood. For more information on attachment theory in early childhood, see these Virtual Lab School lessons in the Infant-Toddler track: Cognitive Development Lesson Three and Self and Cultural Understanding Lesson One.
Each child uniquely experiences and processes trauma. Because there is no standard or expected way in which children process traumatic experiences, there is a wide range of cognitive, social, emotional, or physical symptoms that a child may or may not demonstrate.
To understand the range of symptoms that children may exhibit following exposure to trauma, it’s necessary to consider the developmental stage of the child. Children develop at an astounding rate during the first years of their lives, each with unique challenges and important developmental milestones. Some symptoms of trauma can affect children of all ages without regard to developmental stages. Examples include major changes in eating or sleeping, nightmares, anger or rage, unreasonable fear, or unusually strong startle reactions. Other symptoms may be tied to certain developmental stages.
The following list identifies common symptoms that children may exhibit following exposure to trauma, broken down by developmental stage. It’s important to note that not all children exposed to trauma will experience these symptoms and several of the symptoms listed can be part of typical development or unrelated to trauma. When considering the symptoms that survivors of trauma may experience, it’s important to consider the severity of the symptoms and the impact these symptoms can have on the everyday lives of children and their families.
Infants and young toddlers - (birth-2 years)
Older toddlers and preschoolers - (3-5 years)
School-age children - (6-12 years)
One prominent study that has explored the far-reaching impact of exposure to trauma during childhood is The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE). The ACE study is one of the most expansive investigations to date and explores the connection between adversity in childhood and later-life health and well-being (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016). In 1995, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente collected data from over 17,000 individuals in California. The participants of this study were asked to complete surveys about their childhood experiences as well as their current health statuses. Findings from this study suggest that adverse childhood experiences are common—nearly 2/3 of participants reported at least one ACE and more than 1 in 5 participants reported enduring three or more ACEs during childhood (CDC, 2016). A recent study also reported that children with special emotional, behavioral, or developmental health care needs are more likely to experience two or more ACEs (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2019).
Although not a complete list of every ACE a child may experience, the adverse childhood experiences identified in the ACE study include the following examples of traumatic events:
The Effects of ACEs Throughout the Lifespan
Findings from the ACE study suggest that the more adverse childhood experiences an individual endures, the higher their risk for health and social issues in adulthood. When children have ACEs it can create changes and outcomes including: