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Recognizing Trauma in Children

"The world needs a sense of worth and it will achieve it only by its people feeling that they are worthwhile."
-Fred Rogers

I love this quote. So much so that it’s one of my missions as a therapist to help people realize their worth. What can stand in the way of someone seeing, realizing, and feeling their worth is experiencing a traumatic event. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, nearly ⅔ of children report a traumatic event by age 16. Traumas may include but are not limited to abuse, neglect, assault, domestic violence, community or school violence (including bullying), natural disasters, serious or life-threatening medical illnesses or procedures, serious accidents, sudden loss of a loved one, and/or being around war. Traumatic events that occur during childhood can eventually lead to mental health and substance abuse issues. But they don’t have to.

Recognizing signs of trauma in youth can be a big step in initiating support and getting help for those suffering. Just as race, gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic status do not provide immunity from trauma, neither does age. Trauma can be experienced even prior to birth. Signs and symptoms of trauma, however, vary by age and development. Infants and preschool children may have separation anxiety, sleep problems including nightmares, feeding problems, weight loss, behavioral problems, and/or developmental delays and/or regression in developmental milestones already met. In addition to behavioral problems and sleep disturbance, school-aged children and adolescents may have withdrawn behaviors, anxiety, poor focus and/or attention problems, depression (which in children and adolescents can manifest as irritable mood), and feelings of guilt or shame. Adolescents may also develop eating disorders and/or engage in self-harming and risky behaviors, although I would encourage parents to beware of these sorts of behaviors with children as well.

The list goes on for adulthood and can include lifelong health problems that result from untreated trauma. Breaking the cycle of trauma and the effects start with being proactive in recognizing symptoms and considering professional help. Just one supportive person can make all the difference for a child who has experienced trauma or other forms of Adverse Childhood Experiences. Many treatment options are available to help those who have suffered from events that cause traumatic stress. One evidenced based option for youth is Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT). TF-CBT has been shown to be effective in treating trauma in children ages 3-18. As part of the therapy process, TF-CBT provides psychoeducation and parenting support. However, parents/guardians often feel overwhelmed with a vast array of emotions when realizing their child has had a traumatically stressful experience and may benefit from receiving individual counseling for themselves as they walk through healing. And that is ok! I encourage you to do so!

Trauma in and of itself is a terrible and scary experience. Many may fear and feel overwhelmed with the thought of going through therapy, but just as putting a band-aid on a deep, physical wound will not heal it, putting a band-aid on an emotional wound will not provide healing, either. Find a therapist your child and you feel comfortable with, ask questions, and know you do not have to heal alone. Your child and you are worthwhile.


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