When something happens in a child’s life that causes intense feelings of being unsafe or being under some type of threat, then chances are they have experienced a traumatic event. It could be just about anything that causes this, from having a medical problem that makes them feel like they might not be okay, any form of abuse, an accident, a natural disaster, someone unexpectedly dying to living in an unsafe environment such as a home where one adult is abusive to the other or a community where it is not safe to play outside or walk down the street.
It’s been a while since I’ve caught up on a lot of the research but the last I heard was that domestic violence or intimate partner violence is the number one cause of traumatic stress for children in North America.
Now obviously, not every event or circumstance causes a child to become traumatized by it. Some kids seem to recover easily and some seem to struggle. There are many reasons why and can include the types of support they received during or afterwards and how the adults around them responded. Children take their cues from watching our body language more so than listening to our words.
Sometimes it’s a matter of how kids deal with information. Their brains are still very ‘black and white’ and their perceptions will not be the same as an adult’s. How they perceive the event and the meaning behind it for them and / or for their families is critical and yet they don’t have the same reasoning capabilities that adults do. This can put them at a significant disadvantage. This means, things that may not seem like a big deal to the adults can feel life-altering to the child.
As a general rule, kids process things in bits and pieces. Short bits and pieces in fact. This means kids can bounce from one aspect of the event to happily playing tag outside with friends. This leads many adults to believe that if they don’t bring it up or pretend it didn’t happen or pretend that it wasn’t important, then the child will simply forget and it will ‘go away’. While it is very important to not drag stuff out of kids or make them talk when they’re not ready, pretending or not dealing with it usually ends very badly, sometimes this comes back many years later when kids are using coping mechanisms that are considered unhealthy and at times dangerous (like cutting, running away, alcohol and drugs).
For many kids who experience a traumatic event they can sometimes experience difficulties afterwards as they try to find ways to cope and make sense of whatever has occurred. Their emotions can seem extreme and dramatic, they might seem depressed or anxious or angry. Some kids can struggle in school (it’s very, very hard to learn if you are stressed due to your world not feeling safe) and/or struggle with getting along with others. Some kids can have difficulties eating or sleeping and will sometimes have a variety of aches and pains. Those aches and pains often don’t appear to have a physical source but they are still very real to the child experiencing them. It’s pretty common for most kids to have bits and pieces of these types of reactions after a trauma but for some kids, this can continue on for a long time.
Like adults, kids can develop post-traumatic stress disorder and like adults, they can experience some of the same struggles such as; re-experiencing the event in their mind over and over again. This can be through flashbacks, nightmares, day terrors and so on. When something like that happens, the child may feel like they are right in the middle of the traumatic event all over again and the need for safety is very high. This also makes it tough to tell the difference from a safe person, place or thing and one that is not since everything feels unsafe at this point. It can make the child seem like they are over-reacting or being extreme or dramatic for no reason.
Sometime kids may want to avoid anything that reminds them of the event. This can be taken to pretty extreme measures in an effort to avoid any piece of anything that becomes a trigger or reminding from sounds and sights and smells to places and people and various things. This can easily, severely interfere with their life moving forward.
Common with post-traumatic stress is the sense of not being able to relax or always watching for danger. In kids it is often called ‘hyper-vigilant’ since it is the same as always being “on”. This can significantly interfere with learning and engaging in safe and healthy relationships.
Regardless of how kids might seem on the surface, making sure they have lots of support and opportunities to work through whatever they have experienced is important. Many times it is worthwhile to do this with a trained children’s mental health therapist or equivalent.