Childhood is one of the most important developmental stages in a person’s life. In fact, a person’s childhood shapes the worldview that person will carry with them for a lifetime.
Trauma experienced in childhood can have significant impacts on a person’s mental health and wellbeing, both in the immediate aftermath and over the long term.
Let’s start by defining what trauma truly means. Trauma is the emotional response to being the victim or witness of an emotionally disturbing event. Serious types of childhood trauma, called Adverse Childhood Experiences, are comprised of three categories: abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction.
The immediate impacts of trauma include exhaustion, confusion, sadness, numbness, dissociation, and blunted affect (when a person’s outward expressions of emotions don’t match what he or she is feeling inside). Symptoms of trauma can also manifest themselves in a person with a great deal of energy that is directed in stressful ways, such as anxiety, agitation, and physical arousal.
In most cases, these responses are normal reactions to trauma. However, if these symptoms become severe or long-lasting, it may be an indicator of post-traumatic stress disorder or other trauma-related health concerns.
In some cases, particularly if childhood trauma is not treated, the child may experience the long-term effects of traumatic stress. Traumatic stress can cause major problems for teenagers, including avoidant behavior patterns, nightmares or flashbacks, withdrawal from school, social life, and other activities, anxiety, and depression. Traumatic stress can also cause problems with concentration and short-term memory.
If you are unsure if your child is being affected by traumatic stress, the following are key symptoms to look out for:
● Constant fear and worry, even in situations that wouldn’t normally provoke fear
● Avoiding people, places, or situations associated with the traumatic event, or withdrawing from interaction with others
● Anxiety and depression
● Angry outbursts, which may be caused by unprocessed emotions surrounding the traumatic event
● Self-blame and overwhelming guilt
● Changes in sleep patterns, including night terrors, which the person wakes up sweaty, cold, or shaky
It’s important to address childhood trauma as soon as possible, not just because it helps the child live a better life now, but also because un-healed childhood trauma has been linked to many long-term health consequences. These include chronic inflammation, heart disease, and cancer, which may be explained in part by the correlation between childhood trauma and high-risk behaviors. Such behaviors include substance abuse, unprotected sex, self-harm, and violence. These behaviors may put your child at a higher risk for sexually transmitted infections, as well as overdose or other substance-related health issues, legal troubles, and suicide.
One of the most profound correlations seen between trauma and mental health is their link to substance abuse disorders. Sometimes, survivors of trauma may use substances as a coping mechanism or a way to escape from the difficult emotions they have surrounding their experiences.
The most commonly abused substances in highly-traumatized individuals include marijuana (44.8%), followed by alcohol (39%), cocaine (34.1%), and opiates (6.2%). Marijuana and alcohol are the two most commonly abused drugs within the general population, but cocaine use in particular was found to be heavily correlated with the levels of childhood physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, as well as current symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
No parent wants their child to go down the path of self-destructive behavior, and unhealed trauma can set young people on that painful journey. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure: If your child is exhibiting signs of unhealed trauma, please reach out to a mental health professional who is trained to evaluate and respond to the needs of teenagers.