Childhood and adolescence are important developmental stages in an individual’s life. During this period, a person acquires skills and abilities that will be fundamental in their transition to adulthood. The individual is also exposed to various experiences and influences that will shape their personality and worldview. But, unfortunately, not all of these experiences are positive. Some individuals are exposed to traumatic events during childhood or adolescence that can have a significant and lasting effect on the person’s development and journey into adulthood. Early childhood trauma can significantly impact the developing child, with repercussions that can last a lifetime. This form of developmental trauma can affect a child’s social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development, and, if left untreated, can go on to affect their ability to form and maintain healthy relationships in the present and future.
Definitions and Forms of Childhood Trauma
Early trauma is a broad term used to describe the various harmful experiences experienced by a child before or soon after birth. Early trauma is among the most common and harmful types of child abuse and can have a lasting and profound effect on the developing child. Traumatic experiences such as abuse, neglect, and exposure to violence can affect a child’s development and well-being.
Additionally, common types of childhood trauma include physical, emotional, and psychological abuse, neglect, and exposure to any form of violence (Bartlett & Smith, 2019):
- Physical abuse: This involves inflicting physical pain or injury on a child, such as hitting, shaking, or burning.
- Emotional abuse: This consists of inflicting emotional pain or distress on a child, such as verbal abuse, humiliation, or intimidation.
- Psychological abuse: This form of abuse involves inflicting psychological pain or distress on a child, such as imposing unrealistic expectations or manipulating a child’s emotions.
- Neglect: This involves failing to provide adequate care for a child, such as food, clothing, or shelter.
The Impact of Childhood Trauma on Development
Early childhood trauma can have a significant impact on a child’s development, affecting them physically, cognitively, emotionally, and socially.
Early trauma can profoundly impact a child’s physical development. For instance, exposure to stress and trauma has been found to be linked to increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can affect physical growth and development. High cortisol levels can interfere with the body’s ability to properly absorb and utilise essential nutrients, resulting in growth delays and stunted physical development (Salmon & Bryant, 2002).
Additionally, traumatic experiences can lead to physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, muscle tension, and fatigue. Exposure to trauma can lead to decreased physical growth and an increased risk of obesity and metabolic syndrome. Furthermore, exposure to trauma has been connected with an increased risk of developing chronic medical conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, and autoimmune disorders. This is thought to be caused by changes in the body’s immune system, which can lead to an increased susceptibility to infection and disease.
Early trauma can also affect a child’s cognitive development. Exposure to traumatic experiences can lead to poor concentration, memory difficulty, and problem-solving. Additionally, early trauma can increase the risk of learning disabilities and other developmental delays. Children who have experienced trauma often struggle with complex tasks and may have difficulty processing and retaining information (Schore, 2001).
On a neurobiological level, childhood trauma can also affect the development of the brain’s neural pathways. When a child experiences trauma, the body releases high-stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones can disrupt the development of the hippocampus, a region of the brain responsible for emotion and memory control. The disruption of the hippocampus can lead to cognitive impairments such as difficulty concentrating, impaired memory, and difficulty with executive functioning. Exposure to trauma has been linked to deficits in self-regulation, attention, and working memory, as well as an increased risk of developing mental health illnesses like PTSD, anxiety, and depression (Nader et al, 1990).
Early trauma can significantly impact a child’s emotional development. Traumatic experiences can lead to the development of maladaptive coping mechanisms, such as self-harming or substance misuse. Children with childhood traumas cannot regulate their emotions which could lead to increased aggression. When the victims cannot control their emotions, such as anger, this could lead to self-harming issues (O’Sullivan, 2014). With self-harm thoughts most adolescents who had a traumatic childhood are likely to have suicidal thoughts. There is also greater likelihood that they would have difficulties forming healthy attachments with others and feeling secure and safe in relationships. Children who experience childhood trauma often struggle to trust and be comfortable with themselves or others, which leads to ongoing feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and shame.
Early trauma can also significantly impact a child’s social development. Traumatic experiences can lead to difficulties in forming and maintaining relationships, resulting in social isolation and difficulty interacting with peers. Additionally, children who have experienced trauma may struggle with trust and intimacy, leading to difficulty forming and maintaining healthy relationships (Suliman et al., 2005). This can long-term impact a child’s ability to develop meaningful relationships and participate in social activities.
Helpful Interventions for Childhood Trauma
Childhood trauma can have a serious impact to the developing child, but thankfully interventions are available that will help to offset these harmful effects.
Forming Healthy Relationships
Building and maintaining supportive relationships is essential for children who have experienced early trauma. This can include providing them with a stable and consistent caregiver and helping them to make meaningful connections with other adults and peers. Gerhardt (2015) explains that children’s early relationships significantly develop their nervous systems. Thus, when the relationship is positive, then there is a positive development of the children during their adolescence and adulthood. Teaching children coping skills can help them to manage their emotions and reactions to stress better. This can include teaching them relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, and encouraging them to find healthy emotional outlets, such as art or writing.
Therapy for Childhood Trauma
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which can help children to learn to manage their emotions and reframe negative thoughts and beliefs, and trauma-informed care, which can help children to cope with their traumatic experiences (de Arellano et al., 2014) have been proven to be very helpful forms of therapy for trauma.
Family therapy and play therapy can also help children to build healthy attachments with others and develop better problem-solving skills. Cattanach (2008) explains that play therapy plays a major role in the recovery of adolescents that have been victims of abuse because it helps in sharing their experiences, thus uncovering them and dealing with them.
Levine developed a theory of trauma that focuses on the body’s natural ability to heal from physical, psychological, and emotional injuries. Levine proposed that when a person experiences trauma, the body’s natural defensive reactions are overwhelmed, leaving the person feeling immobilised and unable to protect themselves. Levine’s approach to trauma treatment is based on somatic experiencing (SE), a body-oriented approach to healing trauma that emphasises the body’s natural ability to process and heal from traumatic experiences (Levine & Kline, 2006). Through SE, the client is encouraged to explore their body’s sensations, emotions, and physical responses to better understand and release the trapped energy from traumatic experiences. This is done through various mindfulness practices, such as deep breathing, yoga, meditation, and physical activities like running and martial arts. The goal of SE is to help the client to become aware of their body’s natural defence mechanisms and to learn to use them to manage their traumatic memories and reactions.
Childhood Trauma and Adulthood
For those who have experienced childhood trauma, the journey into adulthood can often be difficult. Many who have experienced trauma may struggle with trust issues, anxiety, and difficulty regulating emotions. This can lead to difficulty in forming meaningful relationships and achieving success in their personal and professional lives.
It is important to note however that those who have experienced trauma are not doomed to a life of suffering. With the right supports, those dealing with trauma can learn to manage their emotions, form positive relationships, and heal from their trauma. In addition, a variety of therapeutic interventions can help those who have experienced trauma to process their experiences in a healthy and manageable way, gain insight into how their trauma has impacted their lives, and, in turn, begin their journey towards healing.
It is never too late to begin healing from trauma. If you think you may be suffering from trauma, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us to find out how you can avail of our specialised trauma therapy services and supports.
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- Cattanach, A. (2008). Play therapy with abused children. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
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