Unfortunately, there are many traumatic events and situations that will occur over the course our lifetimes. While these can certainly have an impact on us – both emotionally and physically – research shows they can have even more long-term, devastating consequences for children later down the road.
A report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2019 highlighted the long-term effects of childhood trauma and why preventing it is an important public health issue. According to the report, about 61% of adults who were surveyed have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE) and nearly 17% have reported exposure to multiple.
These ACEs put these individuals at risk of developing health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, depression and asthma later in life. It can also negatively impact education and employment and lead to substance abuse and unhealthy coping behaviors.
As a parent, you want to provide a nurturing and happy home for your child. However, if you do not have an understanding of the effects of trauma, you may be ill-equipped at helping your child should they experience one.
Jerimya Fox, a licensed professional counselor and a doctor of behavioral health at Banner Behavioral Health Hospital in Scottsdale, AZ, explains childhood trauma and steps you can take as a parent to help reduce and even eliminate the negative consequences of your child’s trauma.
Defining childhood trauma
“Childhood trauma or ACEs can be any event or situation or series of events or situations that overwhelm a child’s ability to cope,” said Dr. Fox. “Whether physical or emotional, real or perceived, these cause a “fight or flight” response, which can affect or shape the way they view and experience life.”
In some cases of childhood trauma, a child may not experience long-lasting harm, however, for others it can interfere with development, personal relationships and health.
“Factors such as the child’s age, perception, the frequency of the trauma and their ability to cope with it can determine the impact these events can have in their lives long-term,” Dr. Fox said.
Types of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)
According to the CDC, the more traumatic events a child has been exposed to, the greater their risk for developing physical and mental health problems throughout their lifetime.
These ACEs may include:
- Household challenges
- Parental divorce or separation
- Economic stress/poverty and homelessness
- Witnessing physical or emotional abuse
- Mental illness and substance abuse within the family or household
- Serious accidents or illnesses and the sudden death of a loved one
- School and community incidents
- Natural disasters, terrorism and community violence
- School violence, bullying or cyberbullying
“These types of trauma affect children and families across all communities and can have long-term effects on health, wellness and relationships,” Dr. Fox said. “But there is hope. If you take the proper steps after your child experiences a trauma, you can help them overcome and thrive in the future.”
How to help your child through trauma
Learn about the common triggers and reactions that children have with traumatic events.
Seek support from a mental health professional
Consult with a qualified behavioral health or mental health professional. When needed, they can help children and families cope with the impact of traumatic events and situations and help them move toward recovery.
Sometimes it can be very complex getting to the root of your child’s trauma. Hold back from any negative emotions or reactions you may have, so your child doesn’t feel blamed. Children may blame themselves for the trauma, even if it was out of their control. Explain to them they are not responsible and are not to blame.
Assure them they are safe
Discuss ways you are ensuring their safety at home and at school.
Positive experiences can help boost your child’s self-esteem and encourage growth, a sense of belonging and independence.
“Kids feel better about themselves when they can learn to do things on their own,” Dr. Fox said.
Be available to listen if your child wants to talk, but don’t force conversations if your child is not ready. While discussing difficult topics or conversations, provide them with reassurance and acknowledge feelings.
Keep a routine
Develop a consistent and regular routine at home and school.
Some children heal quicker from trauma from others.
“Healing from childhood trauma is not linear—there can be many peaks and hills along the way,” Dr. Fox said. “Try not to push your child. Give them time and lots of love and reassurance."
Childhood trauma or adverse childhood experiences can have long-term, negative effects on a child’s health and well-being. However, understanding, recognizing, caring and receiving proper help can help your child heal and thrive.