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Child Development - Supporting Children Who Have Experienced Traumatic Events

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Dr Beechler interviews a young patient and their family

By Elesia Hines, PsyD, HSPP
Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics
Department of Pediatrics, Division of Child Development

It is a commonly held myth that young children are not affected by traumatic events. Many well-meaning adults believe that childhood is a protected time or that children cannot understand what is happening around them, so they will not be affected. However, a substantial amount of research has shown that young children can experience traumatic stress in response to events that threaten their safety or the safety of their caregivers. These events can include physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, death or separation from loved ones, witnessing domestic or community violence, medical trauma, war, terrorism, and natural and man-made disasters. 

Research and clinical experience have shown that trauma in early childhood can derail a child’s development. The impact of the traumatic event on an individual child depends on several factors, including the child’s age, developmental level, previous trauma history, and current social environment (for example, availability of caregivers and community supports). Young children often cannot verbally express how they feel about the difficult events they experienced, so their behaviors are often the first signs that adults recognize. In general, young children who have experienced traumatic events have difficulty regulating their emotions and behavior. They may seem more irritable, emotional, fearful, or withdrawn. They may show regression in skills that they had previously mastered, such as toileting and sleep. Children may complain of body aches and pains or have a decreased appetite.   

In recent years, more attention has been given to the fact that difficult experiences in early childhood can have long-term effects on a person’s health and development. The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study is one of the largest and most well-known studies of childhood abuse and neglect and the impact on later-life health and well-being. The study, which surveyed over 17,000 individuals, revealed that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are common. Almost two-thirds of study participants reported at least one ACE, and more than one in five reported three or more ACEs. The study found that as the number of ACEs increases, the risk for a range of negative health and well-being outcomes also increases (for example, chronic medical diseases, mental health problems, financial stress, risk of intimate partner violence, poor academic achievement). 

There are many ways that parents, caregivers, and other community members can support young children who have experienced trauma. One of the most important protective factors for children is the presence of a reliable, positive, and supportive adult who can serve as a buffer and encourage children to share their experiences. At the community level, many local resources help identify children who have experienced traumatic events and guide them to trauma-informed services. These include medical and mental health clinics, child welfare agencies, early intervention programs, and child care and early education programs. There are several evidence-based methods that mental health professionals can utilize to support young children and their families who have experienced trauma. 

To learn more about trauma and young children, check out the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, the Child Welfare Information Gateway’s statistics on abuse and neglect of children with disabilities, or the CDC’s ACE Study.

Elesia Hines, PsyD, HSPP, is a clinical psychologist at the Riley Child Development Center-LEND Program. She provides psychological evaluations for children with suspected neurodevelopmental disabilities, learning problems, and developmental delays. Dr. Hines also provides therapy services for children presenting with anxiety, trauma, and behavior problems. Her clinical interests include autism spectrum disorders, parent and child relationships, and the assessment and treatment of trauma in young children and their families.

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
Author

Cristy James

Resource and Data Coordinator

Data coordinator in Pediatrics division of Child Development.