How does trauma affect children – and is it different to how it impacts adults?
What is Trauma?
Trauma is an individual experience. One person’s definition may vary from the next. What one might have been exposed to, can be completely different to another. One definition from research describes trauma as:
A psychological distressing event that is outside the range of usual human experience, often involving a sense of intense fear, terror or helplessness” – Bruce Perry 1998
There are three types of psychological trauma a child may experience.
- Acute trauma – this results from a single stressful or dangerous event, for example, the sudden loss of a parent/care taker, medical procedures, accidents or a natural disaster.
- Chronic trauma – this results from repeated and prolonged exposure to highly stressful events causing fear and helplessness. Examples include cases of abuse, bullying and domestic violence.
- Complex trauma – this results from exposure to multiple traumatic events.
The Long Term Impacts of Trauma on Children
Trauma has an impact on all elements of a person: development; learning; emotions; behaviour; body; brain; memory; and relationships.
To further understand how trauma affects children, we first have to look at brain development.
The brain develops in a manner that is experience dependent. The way a child’s brain works is a case of ‘use it, or lose it’ – that means the neurons in the brain that are used get stronger and the parts that are not used become weak. There are three main parts of the brain:
- Brainstem (survival brain);
- Cerebellum (emotional brain);
- Frontal cortex (logical brain).
Brain Pathways Explained
Information about an external stimulus reaches the amygdala in the brain in two ways: direct pathway from the thalamus; and by an indirect pathway from the thalamus via the cortex to the amygdala.
The direct pathway is shorter and faster, but as a result provides an unreliable representation of the external stimulus before knowing what the stimulus is. During this time, the stimulus is being more thoroughly processed by the cortex in the indirect pathway which can prevent inappropriate responses.
When children are exposed to frequent stressful stimuli, their amygdala is continuously on high alert for threats. Children then become hypervigilant and can often find it difficult to adjust, becoming sensitised. For example, if a child is exposed to frequent external stressors such as family domestic violence, it sensitises the amygdala and it starts to be extra alert for any sign of danger. “Traumatized children re-set their normal level of arousal. Even when no external threat exists, they are in a persistent state of alarm.” (Perry, B., & Pollard, R., 1998)
How Does Trauma Impact a Child’s Memory?
One of the functions of the amygdala is to store all of our memories. “It turns out the vast amount of our memory is implicit, and it is these memories that shape our emotional experiences, self-image and relationships. Despite our lack of explicit memory for many childhood experiences, they come to form the infrastructure of our lives” (Cozolino, 2006).
Children may not be able to remember exactly what you said, however the feeling that they experienced in that interaction will stay with them.
How children respond to external stimuli, self-regulate and communicate is dependent on their stored memories and surrounding environment. If a child has been exposed to negative stimuli particularly in the first five years, this exposure mirrors their response and behaviour.
Is Trauma an Injury?
A good analogy that puts trauma in perspective, is to think of it as being an injury. When you break your ankle, most people go to the doctor, have x-rays, get a plaster cast to restrict movement to allowing healing to begin, and take good care of themselves – maybe taking vitamins to increase calcium levels, revisiting the doctor 6 weeks later to remove the cast, then continuing with physiotherapy or similar to care for their ankle for some time afterwards.
I think we should put the same amount of time, effort, thought and care into our mental health just as we would if we had a broken ankle or other physical injury.
Children that have experienced trauma may be in some kind of pain, and this can cause them to feel anxious, aggressive and irritable. Children that have been involved in an inconsistent parental relationship that has involved neglect and rejection, may be required to manage overwhelming situations by depending on primitive and inadequate coping skills. These may be interpreted by others as aggression, dissociation and avoidance.
Trauma Counselling for Children
Eth and Pynoos (1985) stated: “children’s early responses to trauma generally involve deleterious effects on cognition (including memory, school performance and learning), affect, interpersonal relations, impulse control and behavior… formation of symptoms”.
The impact and effects of trauma are dependent on two things: how quickly the child can receive help, and their own internal protective factors such as self-confidence, self-esteem and problem solving skills. Terr (1990) stated that delaying treatment is “about the worst thing you can do”, as the impact of trauma does not subside over time or heal on its own.
When I provide trauma counselling for children, the therapy room is a safe, non-judgmental space where they are able to process their experiences so they can flourish into a wholesome and happy self.
A really beneficial approach to working with children that have experienced trauma is child centered play therapy. This modality is recommended because play is the child’s natural way of expression, and it allows the child to distance from the traumatic event through the use of symbolic materials.
The natural reaction of children is to re-enact or play out the traumatic experience in an unconscious effort to comprehend, overcome, develop a sense of control, or assimilate the experience. Play protects the child by providing them the opportunity to work through external difficulties without having to identify and label the painful incident as their own. This process allows children to work through extremely traumatic events without being further challenged to communicate these confusing events to adults.
Another effective modality when working with children that have experienced trauma is expressive therapies such as sand-tray, play dough, kinetic sand, drawing, painting and other creative tools. I often invite clients to show me their world or create their ideal world in the sand tray. This allows the child to emotionally express their inner selves in a safe, non-judgmental environment which facilitates the healing process.
An additional effective therapy is equine therapy which incorporates horses in the therapeutic journey. Clients engage in many activities such as feeding, grooming, riding and walking a horse all whilst being supervised by a professional. Equine therapy has been found to be effective in children and adolescents that have experienced anxiety, depression, trauma and more. Equine therapy holds a non-threatening environment and this allows children and adolescents to work on trust in self and others, social skills, empathy, emotional mindfulness, confidence, assertiveness, boundaries, problem solving skills, developing and maintaining relationships and impulse control to name a few.
Author: Larissa Watter, BA Counselling.
Larissa Watter is a Brisbane counsellor, passionate about working with children. She is currently furthering her studies by undertaking a Certificate in Child Centred Play Therapy.
To make an appointment with Larissa Watter try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129 or Vision Psychology Wishart on (07) 3088 5422.