Trauma’s Impact on Early Development

Trauma experienced in early childhood can impact a child’s development. Foster parent and therapist Shenley Seabrook shares guidance on how caregivers can navigate the effects of trauma to better support children in their care.

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Understanding Trauma

In order to understand how to support children who’ve experienced early childhood trauma, we first need to understand what trauma is. Trauma is a response to a terrible event, such as a natural disaster, accident, abuse, or serious illness. There are three different types of trauma that are typically observed in childhood: 

  1. Acute Trauma: Accut trauma results from an event that is extreme enough to threaten the child’s sense of safety and security, such as a natural disaster, car accident, or physical assault.
  2. Chronic Trauma: Chronic trauma results from being exposed to multiple, long-term distressing events over a period of time, such as having a long-term illness, bullying, or reoccurring abuse.
  3. Complex Trauma: Complex trauma results from exposure to varied and multiple distressing events, typically related to familial relationships. This may include ongoing childhood abuse/neglect or witnessing domestic violence.

When a traumatic event occurs, shock and denial are typically the first emotions a child will experience. These would be considered “short-term” effects of trauma. However, there are many long-term effects of trauma as well. These include flashbacks, unpredictable behavior, dysregulated emotions, difficulty starting and maintaining relationships, and physical symptoms such as body pain, headaches, and stomachaches. 

Short- and Long-Term Effects of Trauma

Short and long-term effects of trauma vary based on the age the child is when trauma occurs. When children experience trauma between the ages of 0 and 12 months of age, it’s possible that they may have issues with hypervigilance, difficulty showing emotions, mood and personality changes, attachment issues, disrupted sleep, cognitive delays, memory issues, loss of or delayed communication skills, and poor motor skills. 

If trauma occurs when the child is between the ages of 1 and 4 years, they may experience difficulty with self-soothing and regulating emotions, regression in skills or developmental gains, separation anxiety, a diminished ability to manage stress, and cognitive delays.

Finally, if trauma occurs between the ages of 5 and 11 years of age, children may experience sleep disturbances due to nightmares or bed-wetting, lowered self-esteem, symptoms of anxiety and depression, speech and cognitive delays, difficulty concentrating, eating issues such as restricted or over-eating, and engaging in risk-taking behavior. 

Supporting Children Who Have Experienced Trauma

So what can we, as caregivers, do to help children who have experienced trauma? First off, we can do our best to be kind. When we are mindful of the words we are using and we try to build a child up using positive language, we are showing the child that we are a person who cares about their well-being. We can also be predictable. This can look like having the child help you come up with a routine for your time together, using timers, making sure consequences are consistent and spelled out clearly, and following through with what you say you are going to do as often as possible. Finally, we can make safety a priority. This includes setting and enforcing boundaries and limits, and reminding the child that part of your job is to make sure they are safe. This also looks like being aware of a child’s own identified boundaries (for example, not hugging a child who has said they don’t enjoy hugs).     

Studies show that childhood trauma happens to between 20% and 40% of children, though this number may be higher due to the fact that a great deal of child abuse and neglect goes unreported. Unfortunately, this means that as a caregiver, you are likely to come across a child who has experienced trauma at some point in their young life. It is imperative you are well-equipped to support these children to meet their needs.

Recommended Resources

For additional resources on early chldhilld trauma, visit the Child Mind Institute and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Meet The Expert

Shenley Seabrook

Shenley Seabrook is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor who works primarily with children and adolescents in a private practice setting. She is also a foster parent and lives with her husband and daughter in Indiana. Shenley recently wrote her first children’s book, We Have the Same Heart, which celebrates diversity, inclusion, and community service.