What is trauma anyway and what does it look like in children? The Center for Treatment and Anxiety defines trauma as a psychological, emotional response to an event or an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing (https://centerforanxietydisorders.com/what-is-trauma/) Some of the most common causes of trauma include loss of family member or loved one, emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, divorce, separation from parents, life transitions, natural disaster etc. Another major cause is parent trauma. When a parent experiences a traumatic event whether a direct or indirect witness of the incident, your child can be exposed to secondary trauma.
When a child develops trauma, the symptoms are sometimes like a disease, it does not always appear right away, in fact symptoms may not show up for years. Despite this, there are early signs of trauma that parents, guardians and adults can look out for. Trauma signs and symptoms in young children can take many forms. However, some common symptoms include: Eating issues, nightmares during sleep, clingy/separation anxiety, irritable/difficult to soothe, developmental regression, language delay, aggressive behavior, sexualized behavior.
Trauma affects the brain structure, child learning, ability to form attachments with others, social-emotional development and behavior. (Child Trends and National Center for Children in Poverty). Its important to remember that young children deal with trauma differently than adults because they are often unable to communicate how they feel, they are likely act out their feelings in the classroom or school. The school setting tends to be the most commonplace where children "act out" because it is also the place where children spend most of their time. I have oftentimes heard parents say, "my child does not act like that at home" or "my child never does that at home" or "that doesn't sound like my child". For many parents, it seems like their child are a different person in school.
During my time as a foster mother, to my nieces and nephew, I was challenged with dealing with trauma with all three of my foster children. My oldest niece, 4 years old at the time, would often be on her best behavior at home, very pleasant, helpful, respectful, and great helper to me in the house. However, when she was in school, I would often get calls at work of her fighting, hitting teachers and peers, running out her classroom, among many other disruptive behaviors. I understood that these behaviors were her “acting out” because of the trauma caused by being separated from her parents abruptly and placed in foster care. “Acting out” is characterized by certain behaviors that are connected to specific psychological or socio-emotional challenges. Its easy to mistake "acting out" as your child being bad. Acting out is not the same as child being bad, although behaviors may be very similar, the root of the behaviors differs. Oftentimes, parents perceive these behaviors as the child being bad however I encourage parents to take a deeper look.
Although my niece would primarily act out in school, she also showed some early signs in the home that I paid careful attention to including lack of appetite, subtle aggressive behavior to younger siblings and extreme temper tantrums after a home visit with agency case worker. These were all signs of trauma in my niece and was an obvious cry for help.
Trauma may not look like the same for your child as it did for my niece. For other children it may look like isolation, nightmares at night, separation anxiety or language delays. As a foster mother, my job was to understand my niece symptoms and triggers and to help her find positive coping methods to dealing with her loss and trauma. This included help from her school, my local church, my loved ones and help from my local community.
Here are some tips I would like to leave with you reading this article. First If you believe your child/ren may have been exposed to traumatic events, pay close attention to your child/ren behaviors in multiple settings. If you see any of the symptoms or similar symptoms like the one listed in this article, watch carefully and take particular notes. Jot down when your child is acting out, what is happening before the acting out, what was said before he/she acted out, what was he/she doing before, who was around before, where was he/she during the symptoms observed. These are all important information as a parent that you will want to recognize and record for your records and to discuss with a mental health professional.
Familiarize yourself with the normal stages of child development to understand age and developmentally appropriate behavior for your child. Developmental delays are indicators of trauma. Knowing and understanding normal stages of development can be very beneficial to parents when seeking out the right resources for your child. The earlier you recognize and deal with trauma in your child, the better chances your child has in overcoming it. Ignoring these signs will only exacerbate symptoms.
Some steps you can take as a parent includes
Talk to child teacher
Talk to child school counselor
Request an evaluation through the board of education
Speak to your insurance to locate mental health services for your child.
Speak to a religious leader/Pastor
Therapy can be very influential in helping children overcome trauma and live a successful life. Some effective therapies for children dealing with trauma include cognitive behavioral therapy, play therapy and psychotherapy. Therapy is a helpful tool not just for the child but for parents; parents can learn effective techniques to working with their child/ren in the home as well as learn more information about their child/ren mental health.
Prosocial activities such as mentoring and expressive arts are also effective in helping children deal with trauma including enrolling your child into music program, dance program, art program. My Non-Profit organization deals with majority children with trauma and provide in school and one on one services to children and young people who have experienced trauma. Our therapists use a combination of psychotherapy, supportive counseling and expressive arts to help children overcome trauma. I'RAISE also provides clinical based mentoring services to many young people who are coming out of the foster care system and reuniting with their family. These services have been effective in helping children with trauma.
Be proactive and find help for your child/ren or loved ones. If you are still unsure after reading this article, I have listed below some additional resources for identifying trauma.
Adverse Childhood Experience Trauma Assessment
Child Trauma Resources
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network
Look Through Their Eyes