How Trauma Affects a Young Brain
By Jennifer Kurtz, LCSW – Feb. 4, 2020
Prior to working as a Youth First Social Worker I worked with the homeless for 7 years. I helped men, women, and children who were living in cars, hotels, shelters, or with family or friends in overcrowded homes.
While this is not healthy for an adult, it can have an even bigger impact on a child. When I say childhood trauma you may think of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. There are many other types of trauma that can occur, such as witnessing violence or going hungry.
Trauma can also be caused by a child’s separation from a loved adult due to alcohol or drug use, incarceration, or mental or physical illness. Even witnessing physical violence or devastation left by a natural disaster on television can cause trauma to a child.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Child Traumatic Stress Initiative (NCSTI) reports that more than two-thirds of children experience at least one traumatic event by the age of 16.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports that children between the ages of 3 to 6 who are exposed to trauma may:
- Have difficulty focusing or learning in school
- Be unable to trust others or make friends
- Show poor skill development
- Lack self-confidence
- Experience stomach aches or headaches.
These difficulties in elementary school have the potential to effect children into their teen and adult years, repeating the cycle onto their own children.
How, as parents and caregivers, can we help our children? The Child Mind Institute encourages the following tips to help children after a traumatic event:
- Remain calm
- Allow children to ask questions
- Give them your full attention and listen well
- Acknowledge how the child is feeling
- Share information about what happened
- Encourage children to be children (to play and take part in activities)
- Understand that children may cope in different ways
- Help children relax with breathing exercises
- Watch for signs of trauma and know when to seek help
- Take care of yourself
This website offers more in-depth tips to help children recover in a healthy way, and it gives advice for children in different age groups: https://childmind.org/guide/helping-children-cope-traumatic-event/.
The National Survey of Children’s Health found that children who have family to help them build resilience respond well to stress. Resilience can be built through having caregivers who believe in a child’s future, teaching children to calm themselves and regulate their emotions, being involved in the community, and having social connections.
The comfort and support of a parent or caregiver can help a child through a traumatic event, make them feel safe, and help them recover in a healthy way that will benefit them their entire life. A child can also get a lot of support and guidance from their school’s Youth First Social Worker or another mental health professional. Do not hesitate to ask for help if it’s needed.