Following on from my previous post I wanted to take a deeper look into early childhood trauma. Whilst I am nowhere close to being an expert, I have learnt some things through my studies and what my family have gone through.
Early childhood trauma usually refers to trauma experienced by children 0-6 years old. Because infants and young children are not able to verbalise how they feel, we, as adults often assume that because they are so young, they are not aware of the traumatic experience. We think that they don’t understand so they will not be affected. Research has found this is not the case and infants and young children may be affected by events that threaten the safety of their parents, siblings or themselves. The traumas can be as a result of physical, verbal or sexual abuse, domestic violence, accidents, natural disasters, medical procedures, separation from a caregiver through divorce or death and the list goes on.
We must remember however that not all children experience trauma in the same way. Some may not be affected by certain events whilst others may be severely affected.
Imagine how a 2-year-old would feel if they heard their parents arguing, screaming, throwing things or being violent toward each other. They wouldn’t be able to verbalise how that makes them feel, but they may cry or scream. They may blame themselves, they may become withdrawn, stop speaking or become isolated. These frightening noises or images may be re-run in the child’s mind through nightmares or they may act out and become violent with siblings or friends in a kind of re-enactment of the event.
Now imagine a 5-year-old witnessing the same events. They may be able to verbalise what they have seen. They may tell a teacher or friend. Or they may keep it inside for fear of retaliation or the fear that mum and dad will leave. They may as in a younger child blame themselves, become withdrawn and isolated.
Their experience the same, but their perspective different because of their age. I also must point out that not all upsetting experiences are traumatic. As I mentioned earlier all children process events differently and some are less affected by events than others.
Because young children’s brains are developing quickly during this age, they may be at risk of having difficulty with attention, thinking and speech. This impact may explain why some children who have experienced a traumatic event find it difficult to control their emotions.
Young children can experience emotional, physical and behavioural problems which are linked to the trauma they have suffered. Young children may become angry, anxious, fearful, clingy and aggressive. They may regress to an early age and parents may notice they have started to bed wet or stop talking, forgetting things they have learned, become picky with food or suffer constipation or diarrhoea. They may act out in social situations, have difficulty playing or communicating with other children, and they may even act out the abuse or traumatic event. They may lack self-confidence, or they may become aggressive and get into trouble at school.
Many parents may not know how to deal with situations like these, especially if they are not aware of the trauma the child has experienced, for example in cases of abuse.
What can we do to support these children?
Understand that not all upsetting events are traumatic. Understand that all children are unique and do not react the same. Younger children can’t always verbalise how they are feeling and so if you notice a difference in your child ask for help.
As a parent, find support and try to understand the potential implications long term for your child and what you can do to aid in their processing of the event. You know your child best, and it is with your love and the support of child psychologists and specialised psychological therapies that your child will be able to move on.
Think about it. What may be easy for our adult brains to process may be much more difficult for young children. They don’t necessarily have the resilience and definitely not the life experience that allows us to deal with difficult situations. Just because they are so young does not mean they are not affected.