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Child Trauma

What Is Child Trauma?

Child traumatic stress occurs when children and adolescents are exposed to traumatic events or situations that overwhelm their ability to cope. Trauma can stem from:

  • Emotional abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Neglect
  • Accidents
  • Separation from loved ones
  • Loss/abandonment
  • Domestic violence
  • Community violence
  • Substance abuse in the household
  • Mental illness in the household
  • Serious illnesses
  • Natural disasters

Trauma is defined by the way a person reacts to events, and often children lack the coping mechanisms necessary to process the traumatic event and cope with it in order to move forward. This leads to child traumatic stress, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The response often depends on the intensity and length of the traumatic event. Chronic trauma refers to an ongoing traumatic event, such as chronic violence or physical abuse. Repeated trauma can lead to even more negative effects on a child, and make it harder to handle other forms of stress throughout his or her life.

All About ACEs

ACEs stands for adverse childhood experiences; these experiences harm children's developing brains so profoundly that the effects show up decades later. In the CDC-Kaiser Study, the researchers measured these 10 ACES:

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Verbal abuse
  • Physical neglect
  • Emotional neglect
  • A family member who is:
    • Depresed or diagnosed with other mental illness
    • Addicted to alcohol or another substance
    • In prison
  • Witnessing a mother being abused
  • Losing a parent to separation, divorce, or other reason

If you're interested in learning your own ACE score, you can do so here.

Toxic Stress

Stress is the body's normal response to challenging events or environments. Bodies can have a positive reaction to stress, which is a normal part of development and is characterized by brief increases in heart rate and hormone levels. Bodies can have a tolerable reaction to stress, which acitivates the body's alert systems to a greater degree due to serious, temporary stress responses. When these events or environments are threatening or harmful to physical or mental well-being, our bodies activate prolonged stress response. Toxic stress is when a body experiences prolonged activation of stress response systems in the body and brain. This can have a serious impact on development of brain architecture and other organ systems. This is particuarly problematic for children because of the crucial brain development happening in early childhood. You can learn more about toxic stress and its impact from Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child.