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How Does Trauma Impact a Child?

Trauma affects the central nervous system. It interferes with a child’s ability to relax and focus, and ultimately shapes how the child sees his or her future. Childhood trauma can affect critical developmental milestones. It is natural for youth to regress to behaviors they had previously moved beyond in an attempt to feel the comfort of an earlier developmental stage.

Traumatic memories are often stored without words deep within the brain. The tendency to avoid discussing their feelings leads children into isolation. Their anxiety is compounded by fears that the tragic event may happen again.

Children with traumatic stress need to feel secure emotionally and physically at all times to maintain balance and self-control. They tend to interpret disciplinary actions as rejections and may act out. Any form of stress may be considered to be a threat. Fear can lead to the instant and automatic survival reactions of fight/flight/freeze whenever a threat is sensed.

Children affected by trauma may feel very guilty or confused about what happened to them. Youth who have experienced trauma frequently feel deep shame over their inability to manage their emotions or their actions during the traumatic event. The desire for revenge is a natural and predictable aspect of an adolescent’s reaction. 

Some children worry about the frightening experience and may have sleep disturbances. Children and teens may react to trauma with depression, angry outbursts and anxiety. Suicide attempts and completions are more prevalent among individuals who have experienced traumatic stress, as are obesity and chronic health problems. Prevention and early intervention efforts are crucial to addressing these long-term problems that may emerge later on in adulthood.