There are many traumatic events that can befall us in childhood which, as we have seen in other articles I have published on this site, can, potentially, result in us incurring significant and long-lasting psychological damage, especially in the absence of appropriate therapy and meaningful, emotional support from others.
In this article, I will list several types of childhood trauma that can occur and give a brief explanation to elucidate each of these traumatic events :
TYPES OF CHILDHOOD TRAUMA :
- Natural Disasters
- Trauma-Related To Being A Refugee
- Living In A Violent Community
- Medical Trauma
- Being Affected By Terrorism
- Abuse (Emotional, Physical, Sexual – the effects of such abuse are significantly worse if the perpetrator is a parent or primary carer)
- Emotional Neglect
- Living In A Household In Which There Is Domestic Violence
- Complex Trauma
- Early Life Trauma
- Traumatic / Complex Grief
Let’s look at each of these in turn :
1) TRAUMA-RELATED TO NATURAL DISASTERS :
Natural disasters include floods, hurricanes and droughts. According to Carolyn Kousky, the three main ways in which children can be harmed and traumatized by natural disasters fall into three broad categories (see immediately below) :
Physical Harm :
The examples Kousy provides are injury; malnutrition (e.g. due to disrupted food supplies); illness caused by contamination; and disruption to the supply chain of medical equipment/medications.
Harm To Mental Health :
This may be caused by a number of factors. Examples provided by Kousky include the stress caused by witnessing the natural disaster itself; damage to their homes/possessions (or, indeed, loss of these); the strain of having to migrate; grief due to losing friends/family / loved ones; abuse and/or neglect which might arise from the situation they find themselves in due to the disaster (e.g. if having to live in a makeshift ‘camp-site in close proximity to strangers or death of primary carers); a breakdown of their social network; and ruined local economies.
Harm To Education :
This may occur due to enforced closure of schools or schools being destroyed (e.g. in the case of a hurricane); or because the child is forced to leave school and work in order to earn money to help the family recover from the effects of the disaster.
2) TRAUMA-RELATED TO BEING A REFUGEE :
Refugee children may experience long-term, toxic stress (which can have damaging effects on both mental and physical health) due to the extreme hardships they face in relation to :
- the factors (such as war) which forced them to leave their country of origin in the first place
- the journey to the country of refuge (e.g life-threateningly unsafe sea travel in makeshift, overcrowded craft)
- resettlement in the country of refuge (including fear of being deported back to their country of origin)
An example of how extreme the stressful effects of being a refugee child is given below :
- Resignation Syndrome :
In Sweden, a research paper published in Acta Paediatricia (a medical journal) has reported that many child refugees, on learning that they and their families are to be deported back to the country from which they had fled, are, as a result, developing ‘RESIGNATION SYNDROME‘ (‘Uppgivenhetssyndrom) which involves them going into a comatose-like state. Extremely disturbingly, those developing the syndrome become bedridden (or, at least, confined to a wheelchair), mute, incontinent and unable to eat or drink (they are, therefore, fed through a tube) and essentially catatonic according to the article.
Furthermore, scans of these children’s brains revealed that they had NOT been physically damaged, from which we can infer that the children’s symptoms were psychological in origin – i.e. occurring as a result of their traumatic experiences and terror of being returned back to their country of origin where they may face terrible and terrifying danger, rather than as a result of physical brain damage; this inference is further supported by the fact that, if the decision to deport them is reversed, they gradually recover from this appalling condition.
3) TRAUMA-RELATED TO LIVING IN A VIOLENT COMMUNITY :
Young people who live in communities in which they are frequently exposed, directly or indirectly, to violence (e.g. in certain economically deprived parts of inner-city London) may find themselves living in a constant state of fear about being a victim of violence (e.g. muggings, beatings, stabbings or even shootings). If the exposure to violence (and/or the constant threat of violence) is fairly constant, symptoms of trauma may arise such as frequently being in a state of ‘fight or flight‘ and hypervigilance; indeed, in some cases, individuals may develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or complex posttraumatic stress disorder (complex PTSD).
4) MEDICAL TRAUMA :
The term ‘medical trauma’ refers to the trauma children may suffer as a result of serious illness or injury, as well as the treatments associated with these. Whilst, all else being equal, the more serious/threatening / endangering the child’s illness/injury/treatment is, the more traumatic it is likely to be, of crucial importance, too, is how serious/threatening / endangering the child PERCEIVES them to be.
Other factors that can affect the child’s emotional response to his/her illness or injury include :
- pain due to illness injury itself
- pain due to treatments / medical interventions
- the interactions the child has with the medical treatment providers (Marsac et al., 2014)
5) TRAUMA-RELATED TO BEING AFFECTED BY TERRORISM :
Terrorism, defined as a violent act (e.g. bombing or shooting) against unsuspecting people and countries can have extremely, psychologically (as well, obviously, as physically) damaging effects upon the child which include :
- a dramatic shift in how the child views the world (e,g, a shift from viewing the world as relatively safe to seeing it as terrifyingly dangerous)
- behavioural regression and drop in academic performance (Harjai et al., 2005)
Factors affecting the child’s emotional response to such events include how s/he and his/her family/friends have been affected, his/her personality/temperament and the amount of social support and counsellings/he receives.
6) ABUSE :
Please see my previously published article:
7) TRAUMA-RELATED TO LIVING IN A HOUSEHOLD IN WHICH THERE IS DOMESTIC VIOLENCE :
Please see my previously published articles :
8) Complex Trauma :
Please see my previously published articles :
9) Early Life Trauma :
Please see my previously published articles :
10) Traumatic Grief :
Please see my previously published article :
Childhood Trauma Symptoms :
Symptoms of childhood trauma can also be split up into two types: TYPE 1 and TYPE 2 :
These symptoms tend to come about as a result of a sudden, unexpected, catastrophic event such as, for example, the threat of death or serious injury (sometimes referred to as ‘critical incidents).
Symptoms that may develop in response to such an adverse event may range from, at the mild end of the spectrum, disrupted sleep, worry and feelings of insecurity, too, at the other end of the spectrum, the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which is an ongoing condition that may manifest itself through :
-extreme over-arousal of the sympathetic nervous system
-intrusive and distressing memories (flashbacks), nightmares etc
-constant and intense feelings of being under threat
– avoidant behaviour (eg avoidance of social interaction and of situations/activities which trigger disturbing memories of the traumatic event)
NB The above list is not exhaustive.
TYPE 2 :
This category of symptoms may emerge if trauma has continued, repeatedly, over an extended period of time. Often, in these circumstances, the development of symptoms may well be delayed
– problems relating to anger management
– a negative cognitive triad (this is a term used by psychologists to refer to a distorted, negative view of the self, others, and the world in general – it may be addressed through a therapy known as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
The earlier in life that the extended experience of trauma begins, the more damaging its long-term effects are likely to be (trauma experienced in the first three years of life is known to be particularly harmful).
At the extreme end of the spectrum, extended trauma may lead to personality disorders, especially borderline personality disorder (BPD)
A COMBINATION OF TYPE 1 AND TYPE 2 SYMPTOMS OF TRAUMA :
As we have already seen, Type 1 trauma commonly gives rise to symptoms of acute distress and severe over-arousal of the sympathetic nervous system, whilst Type 2 trauma frequently results in more complex and deep-rooted adverse changes to the personality.
In some cases, the individual will experience both Type 1 and Type 2 symptoms; for example, a child who is severely abused over a long period of time may initially display Type 1 symptoms and, then, later in life, develop Type 2 symptoms.
Due to the highly complex causes of Type 2 symptoms, they will usually need to be addressed through psychotherapy (eg CBT, which I have already referred to, or dialectical behaviour therapy, abbreviated to DBT – click here to read my article on DBT).
On the other hand, Type 1 symptoms, at the more mild end of the spectrum, may sometimes be able to be addressed through social support, physical relaxation and sometimes, as a short-term measure, tranquillizers.
NB, It is always very important to consult an appropriately qualified professional when considering treatment options for psychological conditions.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).