Early childhood trauma generally refers to the traumatic experiences that occur to children ages 0-6 years. These traumas can be the result of intentional violence—such as child physical or sexual abuse or domestic violence—or the result of a natural disaster, an accident, or war. Young children may also experience traumatic stress in response to painful medical procedures or the sudden loss of a parent or caregiver. Click here for more information about early childhood trauma.
Witnessing or experiencing trauma not only can cause lasting anxiety and stress, but it also can actually disrupt the health of the developing brain.
“Traumatic events have a profound sensory impact on young children,” found the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. “Exceptionally stressful experiences early in life may have long-term consequences for a child's learning, behavior, and both physical and mental health.”
“Children may blame themselves or their parents for not preventing a frightening event or for not being able to change its outcome,” according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. “These misconceptions of reality compound the negative impact of traumatic effects on children’s development.”
Copeland, Keeler, Angold, and Costello (2007) found that 68% of children and adolescents experienced at least one potentially traumatic event by the age of 16 years. And the younger the child, the bigger the risk.
“Early childhood trauma has been associated with reduced size of the brain cortex,” notes the NCTSN. “These changes may affect IQ and the ability to regulate emotions.”
This can negatively impact a child’s performance at school.
“Traumatized students are often focused on survival, which hampers their ability to learn, socialize, and develop the skills needed to thrive,” note Eric Rossen and Katherine Cowan.
Children exposed to trauma drop out of school at higher rates, they add, have lower academic achievement, higher suspension and expulsion rates, and higher rates of referrals for special education.
Moreover, “failure to provide adequate infrastructure to support students with trauma histories can undermine academic success.”
Schools, which typically have on-site mental health professionals and a trained staff, are suited to support the social and emotional development of students affected by trauma.
The Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative takes this support a step further by advocating for trauma sensitive schools. These schools do more than offer counseling and prevention efforts: They work to develop a shared understanding among the entire school staff, from educators to custodians, to identify students who are suffering the consequences of trauma and help them feel safe physically, socially, emotionally, and academically.
This whole school effort relies on a multitiered system of supports (MTSS) to create an environment in which traumatized children can succeed.
Tier 1 supports, such as bullying and violence prevention programs, are offered to all students. Tier 2 and Tier 3 supports, such as individual or small-group interventions and coordination with community-based service providers, are offered to students with more significant needs.
Identifying childhood trauma and determining its extent and effect is essential to determining treatment.
To learn more about early childhood trauma, consult the NCTSN reading list.
Resources for parents: For more information about childhood traumatic grief, click here.
Resources for teachers: Click here for a list of trauma symptoms in students.
Resources for professionals:
John Briere, PhD, director of the University of Southern California Adolescent Trauma Training Center, National Child Traumatic Stress Network, and an associate professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at USC’s Keck School of Medicine, has researched trauma extensively and developed several psychological assessments that evaluate trauma in children and adults.
His assessments, such as the Trauma Symptom Checklist for Children™ (TSCC™) and the Trauma Symptom Checklist for Young Children™ (TSCYC™) evaluate and measure acute and chronic posttraumatic symptomology in children and allow providers to determine appropriate interventions.
To learn more about Dr. Briere’s work, visit these sites:
TSCYC reliability and association with abuse exposure
Accumulated childhood trauma and symptom complexity
Cumulative trauma and symptom complexity in children