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Childhood Trauma

The following information is drawn from different sources that discuss young people’s mental health. It includes the types and impact of childhood trauma as well as a case study in the area.


Understanding childhood trauma
Childhood trauma

Childhood trauma occurs when a child experiences an actual or threatened negative event, series of events, or set of circumstances that cause emotional pain and overwhelm the child’s ability to cope.


Trauma exposure often begins early in life. Young children are at the highest risk for exposure to trauma and are most vulnerable to its adverse effects (Bartlett & Steber, n.d.).

Impacts of childhood trauma

Childhood trauma is strongly linked to mental and physical health problems over the lifespan. It negatively impacts brain development, cognitive development, learning, social-emotional development, the ability to develop secure attachments to others, and physical health; it is also associated with a shortened lifespan. A considerable body of research demonstrates that children suffer the most severe, long-lasting, and harmful effects when trauma exposure begins early in life, takes multiple forms, is severe and pervasive, and involves harm by a parent or other primary caregiver—often referred to as complex trauma.


Young children who experience trauma may:

  • Have difficulties forming an attachment to caregivers

  • Experience excessive fear of strangers or separation anxiety

  • Have trouble eating and sleeping

  • Be especially fussy

  • Show regression after reaching a developmental milestone (e.g., sleeping through the night, toilet training)

School-age children who experience trauma may:

  • Engage in aggressive behavior

  • Become withdrawn

  • Fixate on their own safety or the safety of others

  • Re-enact the traumatic event through play

  • Have frequent nightmares

  • Exhibit difficulty concentrating in school

Adolescents who experience trauma may:

  • Become anxious or depressed

  • Engage in risk-taking or self-destructive behaviors (e.g., drug and alcohol misuse, dangerous driving, sexual promiscuity, unprotected sex, self-harm, illegal activity)

  • Feel intense guilt, anger, or shame

  • Adopt a negative view of people and society

  • In some cases, have persistent thoughts about suicide or seeking revenge (Bartlett & Steber, n.d.)

Sensory Strategies

Children who have experienced trauma may find it more difficult to regulate their emotions and behaviours than other children. Understanding the impact trauma can have on brain development can help inform practical responses to these children’s needs. This resource describes how practitioners can use strategies that help calm children’s bodies in order to help calm their minds and emotions – specifically, the Regulate–Relate–Reason approach used in Berry Street’s Take Two program (https://www.berrystreet.org.au/our- work/healing-childhood-trauma/take-two).


Optimal brain organisation depends on young children repeatedly having the right experiences at the right times, within safe and predictable relationships with their caregivers. According to the Neuro-sequential Model, there are three main stages of brain development in the early years.

  1. The lower parts of the brain are the first to organise, beginning in utero until around two years of age. These parts help us to stay alive, to move and to use our bodies.

  2. The middle parts of the brain are the second to organise, typically between the ages of one and four years. These parts help us to feel and connect, and to form a sense of belonging and relational safety.

  3. The cortex is the third part to organise, typically between the ages of three and six years. This part is responsible for speech and language, thinking, reflection and planning.

Many children who have experienced abuse, neglect and other traumas miss out on these critical experiences. When working with children and young people who have experienced trauma, therapeutic interventions should work towards re-organising those parts of the brain first affected. This means supporting children to regulate their body before they can regulate their emotions (AIFS 2020).


Capacity to self-regulate

One of the most important functions of development is the capacity to self-regulate. Infants and young children depend on their caregivers to help them when they feel distressed or overwhelmed. As an infant matures, they can develop self-soothing strategies, such as thumb-sucking, rocking and actively seeking the comfort of a preferred carer. Caregivers use sensory strategies to help soothe young children, such as familiar songs, favourite teddies, a preferred drink – not so much the words spoken to them. We don’t tell an infant to calm down, we help them to feel calmed.


As children affected by trauma age, they may lack the skills to self-regulate usually because their sensory systems are organised around preparing for threat and danger or coping in the absence of caregiving. Their lower-brain areas are highly active, even when there is no actual threat, and they are in a state of ongoing stress. This undermines their ability to form trusting relationships with others and their capacity to learn. In most cases, these children need help to calm their body before they can be helped to calm their mind (AIFS, 2020).


Resources

The ChildTrauma Academy (https://childtrauma.org/cta-library/)

This website provides a range of educational resources to help promote the health and welfare of children, with a focus on child abuse and neglect, early childhood development and trauma.

Neurosequential Network (https://www.neurosequential.com/)

This website provides resources and information on the Neurosequential Model as it applies to a range of areas, including education, early childhood and caregiving.

The Take Two website provides more information about the program and a range of resources designed to inform carers, practitioners and service providers.

Developmental differences in children who have experienced adversity (https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/developmental-differences)

This four-part series of CFCA practitioner resources on developmental differences is intended to help guide professionals supporting vulnerable children and their families.

The effect of trauma on the brain development of children: Evidence-based principles for supporting the recovery of children in care (https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/effect-trauma-brain-development-children)

This CFCA practitioner resource provides an overview of what we know from research about cognitive development in children who have experienced trauma and provides principles to support effective practice responses to those children's trauma.


Sources

AIFS: Australian Institute of Family Studies. (2020). Calming the body before calming the mind: Sensory strategies for children affected by trauma. https://aifs.gov.au/resources/short-articles/calming-body-calming-mind-sensory-strategies-children-affected-trauma


Bartlett, J. D., & Steber, K. (n.d.). How to Implement Trauma-informed Care to Build Resilience to Childhood Trauma. https://www.childtrends.org/publications/how-to-implement-trauma-informed-care-to-build-resilience-to-childhood-trauma


Parent-Infant Foundation. (n.d.). Understanding early trauma.https://parentinfantfoundation.org.uk/our-work/imhaw/

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