Childhood trauma is more common than you may think. In fact, more than two thirds of children in the United States have reported at least one traumatic event by age 16. This can cause emotional distress that can impact their health – mental, physical and emotional – and personal relationships, which can follow them into their teenage and adult years if they don’t have support.
Let’s take a deeper look at what causes childhood trauma, what the signs are and how you can help a child who is struggling.
What Causes Childhood Trauma?
Oftentimes, children look to the adults in their lives – whether they’re a caregiver, family member, community leader or acquaintance – as role models to keep them safe from harm.
Unfortunately, in many cases with child abuse, it’s common for those trusted adults to be the perpetrators. In cases of sexual abuse, one in nine girls and one in 53 boys under 18 years old are sexually abused or assaulted by an adult. Even more disheartening, a study by the United States Department of Justice showed that 93% of child sexual abuse perpetrators are known to the child.
Another leading cause of childhood trauma is bullying, a nationwide issue that has increased over the years with the use of the internet and social media. Recent studies show that 20% of kids age 12 to 18 in the United States experience bullying at school, with 15% of those individuals being bullied online or via text.
Most often, children who are being bullied are the subject of rumors or lies, are being called names or are being pushed, shoved, tripped or spit on, all of which can significant impact a child’s confidence and mental well-being. In severe cases, bullying can lead to feelings of isolation, hopelessness, depression and anxiety.
Childhood trauma can also be caused by:
- Physical and emotional abuse and neglect
- National or worldwide disasters like the COVID-19 pandemic
- Military family-related stress like deployment or having a parent injured
- Violence in school or the community
- Sudden loss of a loved one
- Substance use disorder
- Severe stress caused by poverty
The Signs of Childhood Trauma
In the weeks or months following a traumatic event, a child may exhibit:
- Trouble falling or staying asleep
- Anger issues
- Feelings of sadness
- Changes in appetite
- Loss of interest in activities
- Trouble with concentration
- Thoughts of death or violence
If childhood trauma goes untreated, it can have serious long-term effects that can show up into adulthood. People who struggle with childhood trauma may be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, have trouble maintaining personal relationships, use drugs or alcohol excessively, struggle with avoidance and more.
How to Help With Childhood Trauma
When a traumatic event occurs, there are a few ways you can take to provide the child with support.
Have honest conversations with them by asking them how they are really doing, validating their emotions and reassuring them it’s okay to express their feelings. Experiencing a traumatic event can have a tremendous impact on a child, so you want them to feel comfortable and safe coming to you when they need support.
If you notice the child struggling, you can consider having them see a therapist who can provide additional support. Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, or TF-CBT, is a type of treatment for children and adolescents ages 3 to 18 who have significant symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or depression related to traumatic events. Generally, a non-offending parent or caregiver is brought into the child’s TF-CBT sessions, where some principles of family therapy are incorporated.
In the case of sexual abuse, it’s important for you to stay calm, believe the child and report the abuse to the police, a local child advocacy center or call RAINN’s national 24/7 hotline at 800-656-HOPE.
Through mental health treatment and encouragement from the people in their support systems, survivors of childhood trauma can find peace and fulfillment.
If you or someone you know is struggling with trauma, you are not alone. Through support and the use of self-management tools like the Mira app, they can find relief from their symptoms. To learn more about PTSD and trauma, take a look at our blog!