The Prevalence of Trauma in Children and Teenagers

The research on trauma shows the alarming impact it has on our children in the United States. One would think in a country as sophisticated as the USA the incidences of trauma would be minimal. This is not true.

Research on trauma shows two thirds of children exposed to  trauma by age 16

Boy holding his hands over his ears
A significant number of children in American society are exposed to traumatic life events.

According to the 2008 Presidential Task Force on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Trauma in Children and Adolescents as published by the American Psychological Association the following is stated as a reality:

“A significant number of children in American society are exposed to traumatic life events. A traumatic event is one that threatens injury, death, or the physical integrity of self or others and also causes horror, terror, or helplessness at the time it occurs. Traumatic events include sexual abuse, physical abuse, domestic violence, community and school violence, medical trauma, motor vehicle accidents, acts of terrorism, war experiences, natural and human-made disasters, suicides, and other traumatic losses.

In community samples, more than two thirds of children report experiencing a traumatic event by age 16. However, estimates of trauma exposure rates and subsequent psychological sequelae among children and youth have varied depending on the type of sample, type of measure, informant source, and other factors.

  • Estimated rates of witnessing community violence range from 39% to 85%— and estimated rates of victimization go up to 66%.
  • Rates of youths’ exposure to sexual abuse, another common trauma, are estimated to be 25 to 43%.
  • Rates of youths’ exposure to disasters are lower than for other traumatic events, but when disasters strike, large proportions of young people are affected, with rates varying by region and type of disaster. Children and adolescents have likely comprised a substantial proportion of the nearly 2.5 billion people affected worldwide by disasters in the past decade.
Race and ethnicity, poverty status, and gender affect children’s risk of exposure to trauma.

Other acute and potentially traumatic events also affect large numbers of children. In 2006, 7.9 million U.S. children received emergency medical care for unintentional injuries (from motor vehicle crashes, falls, fires, dog bites, near drowning, etc.), and more than 400,000 for injuries sustained due to violence. Race and ethnicity, poverty status, and gender affect children’s risk of exposure to trauma. For example, significantly more boys than girls are exposed to traumatic events in the context of community violence, and serious injury disproportionately affects boys, youths living in poverty, and Native American youths.”



Brain research, serious consequences

What we know from current brain research is that children who have been exposed to traumatic events such as mentioned above have serious consequences. We also know that a child’s brain is in a constant state of wiring, and then in teenage years, rewiring.

Brain development in children is truly an amazing process, beyond our complete understanding because of its complexity and scope. But when a growing brain is exposed to traumatic events, research informs us that children can be permanently impacted even into adult years.

Look at the ACE Study

Girl with arm in cast
The impact of trauma is documented well into adulthood

The famous ACE study directly correlates adverse childhood events (trauma) with social, emotional and cognitive impairment, adoption of health-risk behaviors, disease, disability and even early death. This impact is documented well into adulthood.

When children experience trauma, whether from a single event, many events, or events that are severely traumatizing to less severe in nature, brain wiring—and ultimately brain functioning—is affected in small to significant ways.

In my next few posts, we will discuss and evaluate more fully ways in which trauma impacts the brains of children. For anyone who interacts with children, this is vital and important information to know.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

Information taken from Enhancing Trauma Awareness, Diane Wagenhals, 2008.  All rights reserved.  Licensed materials.

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