What Is the Impact of Trauma on Four Aspects of Development in Children?

Traumatic events are dramatically impactful to children at every level of development. As we look at the general impact it has on their development, it seems we would understand the need to prevent the trauma by protecting them from the traumatic environments that our children are exposed to. 

An overview of trauma on child development

This article provides an overview of the impact of trauma in each area as published on the website of Fostering Relationships. I think this information is compelling and significant for our childcare and educational systems to consider.

Physical: Effects of Trauma

Heightened stress-response hormones interfere with young children’s capacity to develop the physical control expected of them during this developmental period. Whether because of constant agitation or numbness—either can result from trauma–they may be so unaware of bodily sensations that they don’t know when they are hungry, or tired, or need to use the toilet.

Because they have no reliable means of reading, let alone signaling, their physical states or psychological needs, this level of disconnection from their bodies often makes it difficult for caregivers to help these children develop physical controls.

Young children suffering the effects of trauma are also more likely than their peers to experience outbursts of aggression, excessive crying, and heightened fears.

Cognitive: Effects of Trauma

Because toddlers and pre-schoolers carry the memory of traumatic events in their bodies, they often “feel” them as physical sensations or overwhelming emotions, rather than knowing them in words or as events that happened in the past.

Along with the direct neurological impact and heightened stress, this tendency typically results in altered states of being such as an overactive startle response, difficulty being soothed, agitation, and/or sluggishness. All of this makes it difficult for young children to learn because they can’t easily attend to or explore their environment.

It is important to remember that cognitive development is layered; delays from infancy will be carried into toddlerhood, which will then influence learning during the pre-school years.

Social: Effects of Trauma

Children who enter the toddler years from a background of trauma will have a hard time developing self-control and will therefore lack the experience of self-confidence that comes from competence.

Delays in motor skills and language acquisition can interfere with their capacity to enjoy play with peers and their lack of trust often makes it hard for them to accept help from adults.

In the pre-school years, traumatized children may be inhibited in their play with little interest in exploration. Their delayed social skills may cause difficulty in peer relationships,  further delaying the development of those skills and depriving them of the pleasure of peer interactions and friendships.

Emotional: Effects of Trauma

Children whose caregivers neglect their physical or emotional needs, or respond unpredictably and erratically, will develop insecure attachments. These children will show their lack of trust by avoiding eye-contact, or by physically tensing and turning or pushing away from adults.

Others might move between clinging and aggressive behavior. Still others are so disorganized in their relationships and behavior that it is hard for adults to know what they need or how to respond.

As traumatized children move through toddlerhood and the pre-school years, they will have more trouble than their peers in both knowing and appropriately expressing their feelings.

The emotional immaturity of young children suffering from trauma often leads both adults and other children to keep an emotional distance from them, which then impedes the development of their social skills and the development of emotional intelligence.

No child reacts the same as another.

There are significant physical, cognitive, social, and emotional consequences to our children who are trauma-impacted. No child will react the same as another, but the consequences are predominant, pervasive and powerful.

If we have a trauma lens for our children, particularly as we watch for some of these effects, we need to recognize that something happened to them that they are attempting to respond to in the best way they can.

Realizing this can make the difference between whether a child is helped or condemned.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network


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