Childhood Trauma: Impact
It is only recently that the mental-health community has acknowledged that children can experience the damaging effects of trauma and that posttraumatic stress disorder can occur in childhood. We now know that children may develop PTSD as a result of a broad spectrum of traumatic experiences such as sexual and physical abuse, natural and man-made disasters, sudden loss of a parent or close relative, or accidents that threaten or are perceived as threatening to life or physical and/or psychological health. In 1987, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), 8 which is a classification of mental disorders used by mental-health professionals, finally referred to child-specific symptoms of PTSD.
|Photo by Luke Powell © United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan|
When school-age children are exposed to powerful events that are beyond their control, their usual ways of coping are compromised. The memory of the trauma remains psychologically separated from other life experiences that support a sense of who they are and how they view the world. As long as this separation remains, memories of the trauma can return in the guise of intrusive images and thoughts, sleep disturbances, uncomfortable feelings, and maladaptive behavior. In such cases, school-age children are prone, often unconsciously, to use extreme measures to avoid feeling overwhelmed. By numbing and constricting their emotions and/or developing physical symptoms such as headaches and stomachaches, they attempt to escape the painful psychological effects of trauma. Although these adaptations may provide relief in the short term, in the long term they can become maladaptive, interfering with functioning at school, socially, and at home.