Parenting Through a Trauma Lens

Studies over the past couple of decades have unearthed some startling statistics about the prevalence of childhood trauma – more than 25% of children experience a serious traumatic event before their 16th birthday.  One quarter of these children will develop symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress.  The following statistics are not meant to frighten you, but to increase awareness of the degree to which trauma is a part of the lives of children in our society today.

Sexual Abuse - Though not the only kind of trauma faced by children, sexual assault is a significant risk with the greatest risk between ages 7-13.  One in four girls (25%) and one in six boys (17%) will be sexually assaulted before age 18. 

Out of Home Placement – A national study of adult foster care “alumni” found high rates of PTSD (21.5%) compared to the general population (4.5%) and to war veterans (ranging from 6-15% in recent wars).

Motor Vehicle Accidents - Vehicle deaths are the leading cause of death for adolescents and for the survivors a major source of trauma.

Other Traumas – Physical or emotional abuse or neglect; witnessing or being the direct victim of domestic, school or community violence; other severe accidents; natural and human-made disasters; the sudden death of a parent, sibling or other important attachment figure; exposure to war, terrorism, or refugee conditions.

Of course, not everything bad that happens to children is traumatic – some of what they see as traumatic is just “drama” (e.g. a failing grade on a test or the loss of a BFF).  At the same time, it is important to recognize that even though children often want to avoid talking about actual traumatic events and insist they are “fine,” if the child is exhibiting behaviors and showing symptoms consistent with traumatic stress, ignoring it will not make it go away.

Depression and anxiety are both common reactions to trauma.  Childhood trauma victims may experience nightmares and trouble sleeping, and will avoid people, places, or things associated with the trauma.  Many are scared for no reason or feel “crazy” or out of control.  Difficulties with concentration (resulting in behaviors problems at home and issues with academics) are common.  Children develop traumatic expectations, feel helpless, angry, shameful, guilty, sad, and/or numb.  Many have low self-image.  Some present physical health complaints and/or behavioral issues (including aggressive and violent reactions).

Symptoms are our body’s natural response to feeling threatened.  We all have experienced aspects of the fight, flight or freeze instincts in our life.  Some people are temperamentally wired towards one or another of these instincts.  Environmental factors can contribute to one becoming an instinctual response.  A child who witnessed domestic violence or community violent might develop an instinct that the only way to stay safe is to fight – thus even in non-violent situations when that child feels threatened in some way – emotionally or physically – he or she becomes aggressive.  Another child even a sibling may have developed an instinct to “leave” stressful situations which becomes a lifestyle of avoidance.  Others may simply “numb” as they shut down any reaction to stresses around them.

However, helped to process and manage the emotions related to their trauma many children end up with lessons that can serve them well later in life (e.g. how to conduct themselves in the face of danger, threat or major stress, that others can be relied on to protect, that support is available, a positive sense of being a survivor, and increased compassion/empathy for others.)  A major factor is having a believing, supportive and protective caregiver.

Parents whose children have experienced trauma may have some of the following reactions: self-blame; guilt and shame; blaming the child; being overly protective; being overly permissive; feeling overwhelmed; worrying the child won’t recover; suffering from their own PTSD symptoms; fearing that focusing on the event makes the trauma worse.

It is important for both child victims of traumatic events and their caregivers to recognize that trauma and the symptoms it causes do not define the child.  They may be the reason for the referral to a mental health professional, but trauma is simply “what happened to you” not “who you are.”  And while symptoms are a manifestation of “what do you think about what happened to you,” their resolution lies in redefining the answer to that question. 

Working with a trauma-informed therapist can help families work for more positive outcomes despite past traumatic events.