How Traumatic Events Affect Child Development

While all children encounter stressful events in their lives, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry defines traumatic events as those that are beyond the scope of what one might ordinarily expect to encounter. These traumas can be a single occurrence, or repeated over time, which may affect the appearance and severity of the child's response. Children often experience traumatic events differently than adults, left untreated, this trauma can, and most likely will have an impact on their development. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, the effect on development relates largely to the child's age and current stage of development when the trauma occurs 1.

Young Children

When young children experience a traumatic event, they may become more susceptible to feelings of helplessness and an inability to understand the prospects of continued danger, whether or not any real dangers exist. Fear about this danger can carry over into other parts of their lives and they may have trouble expressing it or explaining their anxiety. These young children may regress developmentally, including losing the ability to fall asleep alone or separate themselves from parents or guardians. They may also have trouble participating in activities they previously enjoyed, even things as simple as playing in the yard. Young children could even regress so far as to lose speech and toilet-training skills. They may experience serious sleep disturbances and fixate on the event by recreating it consistently in their play.

School-Age Children

Children of school age are further along in their development and, while still impacted by traumatic events, may be able to better express these effects verbally. For these children, it is not uncommon to witness a constant retelling of the event including descriptions of feeling anxious or overwhelmed. School-age children may experience persistent concern over their own safety and the safety of others, even when this concern is not appropriate. Developmental regression for school-age children can include trouble learning or focusing in school as well as sleep disturbances. These kids may also become physically ill more easily and even engage in more aggressive, rage-filled and other previously uncharacteristic behavior.

Additional Consequences

Unchecked trauma can have lasting effects, including longer term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. According to the AACAP, it's not uncommon that individuals treated for depression, ADHD, panic disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, violent behavior or other mental issues have a history of trauma, whether it's a single instance or a result of experiences over time. Traumatized children may become extremely apprehensive about the world around them and may even internalize their pain, which resurfaces and manifest itself later in life. If you have concerns about your child, speak to your child's pediatrician.

Ways to Help

A child who experiences trauma need not be doomed to a life of substandard development and reliving that trauma. There are a number of ways parents and caregivers can intervene early and help a child recover -- at least in part -- from traumatic experiences. Families can offer emotional support and opportunities to play, draw, rest and verbalize their feelings as much as possible. According to the government organization Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools, when family support and a child's own resilience are not enough, ample counseling is available for children who have experienced trauma 2. Trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy, which helps children think about how the trauma affects their behavior. Child-parent psychotherapy is also used to help children understand how the trauma has impacted familial relationships. If you have any concerns, speak to your child's pediatrician.