Childhood Experience of Trauma

Trauma—the overwhelming arousal and cognitive dislocation that results from experiencing horrible events—is an important field of study for those who seek to understand mental health in childhood. As with depression, it was once thought that children were incapable of experiencing genuine psychological trauma (Van der Kolk). But research and clinical experience since 1980 have established that trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder play significant roles in the mental health of children.

Children experience trauma in many settings: televised violence, community violence, domestic violence, war, and homelessness. All point to the need to develop a better understanding of the impact of trauma on childhood as part of a larger commitment to understand the mental health issues facing children.

Children may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as a consequence of their experiences at home, in school, or in the community. Symptoms in children include sleep disturbances, daydreaming, re-creating trauma in play, extreme startle responses, diminished expectations for the future, and even biochemical changes in their brains that impair social and academic behavior. Trauma can produce significant psychological problems that interfere with learning and appropriate social behavior in school and the family, the bedrocks for mental health in childhood.

The children least prepared to master trauma outside the home are those who experience psychological, physical, or sexual maltreatment at home. Hundreds of thousands of children face the mental health challenge of living with chronic community violence, whether it derives from war or domestic crime. Some 30 percent of the children living in high-crime neighborhoods of Chicago had witnessed a homicide by the time they were fifteen years old, and more than 70 percent had witnessed a serious assault (Garbarino et al.). In refugee camps around the world, children witness and are subject to violence and exploitation.

The experience of community violence takes place within a larger context of risk for these children. They are often poor; often live in families where the father is absent; often contend with their parents' depression or substance abuse; often are raised by parents with little education or few employment prospects; and often are exposed to domestic violence. This constellation of risk by itself creates enormous mental-health challenges for young children. For them, the trauma of community violence is often literally the straw that breaks the camel's back.

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