How do you know if a child has been traumatized?

February 19, 2019
How do you know if a child has been traumatized? | Texas Children's Hospital
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We recently touched on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and the compelling findings of the original ACE Study, which was conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the 1990s through surveying over 17,000 adults.

Remember – nearly two-thirds of the respondents reported experiencing at least one traumatic incident before turning 18.

[read:] What are adverse childhood experiences?

Why is this important? Over the past 20 years, ACEs were studied extensively in both adults and children across a wide variety of demographics, and one consistent finding confirms traumatic experiences during childhood can affect development, behavior and overall health for a lifetime.

Let’s revisit the original categories of trauma from the ACE Study:

  • abuse: physical, emotional, sexual
  • neglect: physical, emotional
  • household dysfunction: parental separation or divorce, domestic violence, household member with substance abuse problem, household member incarcerated, household member with untreated mental illness

This framework for classifying traumatic experiences has since expanded to include children who:

  • faced bullying or harassment
  • endured mistreatment because of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, religion, disability, etc.
  • lived in foster care
  • experienced the loss of a caregiver, family member or close friend
  • endured a serious medical procedure or life-threatening health condition
  • witnessed community or school violence
  • were separated from family due to deportation or immigration

But how do you know if a child has been traumatized? In many cases, you’ll see changes in their behavior, mood or overall functioning. Some questions to consider:

  • does the child seem more angry, sad, anxious or jumpy for no apparent reason?
  • have you noticed drastic changes in the child’s appetite or sleep patterns?
  • has the child’s grades dropped in school?
  • does the child avoid certain people, places or activities they used to enjoy?

If you suspect your child experienced a traumatic event you’re unaware of, we suggest talking with them in an open, honest and non-judgmental manner. It’s critical to allow your child to speak freely while you listen attentively. Let your child know you love and support them unconditionally.

If your suspicions are confirmed, consider seeking mental health support from a trained pediatric trauma psychotherapist. Be your child’s confidant and provide a reliable support system. If your child has health insurance, check your insurance card or your provider’s web site for more details on mental/behavioral health coverage and programs available to your family.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Trauma and Grief Center at Texas Children’s Hospital, click here.

Post by:

Adiaha I.A. Spinks-Franklin, MD

Dr. Spinks-Franklin's research interests are in the areas of the cultural aspect of child development. Her previous research experience included studying the development of children in Senegal, West Africa, and studying the mental health impact of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on school-...

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