The Benefits of Treating Trauma at a Young Age

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Though all of us will experience a traumatic event at some point in our lives, many people recover soon after the traumatic event has passed. Others are not so fortunate. Some of us experience trauma as a single event or series of events and suffer a range of consequences that jeopardise our overall health and well-being.

Trauma that has occurred in childhood has a significant impact on a child’s brain development.1 Trauma impacts areas of the brain responsible for cognitive function, distress tolerance, and emotional resilience.2 As such, traumatic events in childhood should followed by compassionate, trauma-informed care and support. Early treatment following a traumatic event or event(s) in childhood significantly reduces the severity of trauma’s impact.3

What Is Trauma?

SAMHSA defines trauma as anything that overwhelms the nervous system and has a lasting psychological impact on a person.4 When trauma occurs in childhood, professional treatment is essential. The mental, emotional, and behavioural effects of trauma are destructive and debilitating. When trauma occurs in childhood and is left untreated, the effects continue into adulthood and permeate all aspects of our lives, including our:

  • Cognitive function

  • Professional and academic performance

  • Physical health

  • Psychological health

  • Behavioural health

  • Social well-being

Trauma can happen following a broad range of events, such as:

  • Physical, verbal, or sexual abuse in childhood

  • Exposure to domestic violence

  • Natural disasters

  • Motor accidents

  • Loss of a loved one

  • Homelessness, poverty

  • Community violence

  • Racism, discrimination

  • Bullying

The psychological consequences of trauma are progressive, which means they gradually worsen without treatment.5 The earlier a person receives professional help for their trauma symptoms, the more likely they are to recover and lead a happy, healthy life.

What Is Childhood Trauma?

Childhood trauma can have a severe and lasting impact on a person’s well-being. When trauma occurs in childhood, in such cases as attachment ruptures or loss of a loved one, a child may be diagnosed with Complex Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD).6 PTSD is a common but nonetheless debilitating condition that can affect anyone who has been exposed to trauma.

C-PTSD is a more severe type of PTSD because children’s brains are in a vulnerable stage of development. Traumatic events in childhood can shape a child’s understanding of the world around them, making early treatment an essential intervention for preventing mental and behavioural health issues in later life.

What Are the Effects of Childhood Trauma?

Childhood trauma impacts individuals differently, depending on:

  • One’s level of emotional resilience

  • The severity of the trauma

  • The availability and accessibility of compassionate, trauma-informed treatment

In young children, such as those at a preschool or primary school age, trauma can have the following impact:

  • Separation anxiety

  • Decreased appetite

  • Sleep disturbances, nightmares

  • Anxiety, fearfulness

  • Aggression, anger, acting out

  • Low mood

  • Loss of interest in play

Older children and adolescents may experience the following effects of trauma:

  • Social withdrawal

  • Decline in performance at school

  • Guilt

  • Shame, low self-worth, low self-esteem

  • Poor concentration and attention

  • Anger, irritability

  • Depression

  • Eating disorders

  • Substance abuse

  • Sexual promiscuity

Childhood trauma impacts our adult lives. Suppose a child or teen experienced physical or sexual abuse. In that case, as they grow older and enter adulthood, they are likely to show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), shame, guilt for what happened, and a distorted self-view.7

PTSD that stems from childhood trauma can harm adult relationships, professional life, and overall mental and behavioural health. Adults living with unresolved childhood trauma are subject to the following:

  • Depression

  • Anxiety, panic attacks

  • Fatigue

  • Poor concentration and attention

  • Eating disorders

  • Substance use disorder (SUD)

  • Sleep problems

  • Social withdrawal

  • Flashbacks to the traumatic event(s)

  • Compulsive behaviours

  • Self-harm

  • Suicidal ideation

  • Chronic pain, stress, and inflammation

  • Obesity

  • Cardiovascular issues

Early treatment for childhood trauma reduces our risk of experiencing the above in adult life. When a child receives compassionate, trauma-informed support in the short aftermath of a traumatic event or event(s), they are less likely to suffer from adverse health issues.8

What Treatments Are Available for Childhood Trauma?

Though childhood trauma can have a destructive impact on all areas of our life, both during childhood as we enter adulthood, the good news is that there are practical, evidence-based treatments available. Those who struggle with the symptoms of trauma and PTSD can learn to identify their triggers and develop healthy, adaptive coping mechanisms to reduce their symptoms.

In recent decades, psychologists, therapists, psychiatrists, and neuroscientists have made significant strides in the area of trauma-informed mental and behavioural health care. Common treatment modalities for child, adolescent, and adult survivors of childhood trauma include:

Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR)

Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an evidence-based, experiential therapy that can support children, teens, and adults in increasing their awareness and emotional resilience. In an EMDR session, clients receive bilateral stimulation as they explore their traumatic memories.9

This bilateral stimulation, which could be left to right eye movement following a pointer or hand, or sounds that pan from left to right, keeps clients grounded in the room in the present. As such, clients remain grounded in the present, and their traumatic memories rise to the surface.

This technique helps clients viscerally understand the difference between the present moment and their past experiences, thereby reducing a common trauma symptom – re-living the past as though it were happening again in the present.

In Conclusion

Childhood trauma can have a long-term negative impact on our health and well-being. Childhood trauma survivors face an increased risk of mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Adolescent and adult survivors of childhood trauma also face an increase in behavioural health issues such as self-harm and substance abuse. Fortunately, effective treatment is available.

When treatment for childhood trauma is sought early, survivors have a significant chance of leading a happy, healthy life. Early trauma treatment is an essential, life-saving preventative measure against the more severe effects of trauma that can develop in late childhood and early adulthood.

While early treatment is essential, treatment is also available and can be effective in later life. Adults who have suffered childhood trauma need not feel hopeless about their circumstances. Practical, evidence-based trauma treatment is available for children, adolescents, and adults alike.

1 De Bellis, Michael D, and Abigail Zisk. “The biological effects of childhood trauma.” Child and adolescent psychiatric clinics of North America vol. 23,2 (2014): 185-222, vii. doi:10.1016/j.chc.2014.01.002

2 Cross, Dorthie et al. “Neurobiological Development in the Context of Childhood Trauma.” Clinical psychology : a publication of the Division of Clinical Psychology of the American Psychological Association vol. 24,2 (2017): 111-124. doi:10.1111/cpsp.12198

3 Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US). Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2014. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 57.) Chapter 3, Understanding the Impact of Trauma. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/

4 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 14-4884. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2014.

5 Bremner, J Douglas. “Traumatic stress: effects on the brain.” Dialogues in clinical neuroscience vol. 8,4 (2006): 445-61. doi:10.31887/DCNS.2006.8.4/jbremner

6 nhs.uk. 2018. Complex PTSD – Post-traumatic stress disorder. [online] Available at: <https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/complex/> [Accessed 8 April 2021].

7 “Committee opinion no. 498: Adult manifestations of childhood sexual abuse.” Obstetrics and gynecology vol. 118,2 Pt 1 (2011): 392-395. doi:10.1097/AOG.0b013e31822c994d

8 Menschner, C. and Maul, A., 2016. Key Ingredients for Successful Trauma-Informed Care Implementation. [ebook] Center for Health Care Strategies. Available at: <https://www.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/programs_campaigns/childrens_mental_health/atc-whitepaper-040616.pdf> [Accessed 8 April 2021].

9 Menon, Sukanya B, and C Jayan. “Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing: a conceptual framework.” Indian journal of psychological medicine vol. 32,2 (2010): 136-40. doi:10.4103/0253-7176.78512

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