Abuse, neglect, and exposure to unhealthy conditions in the home are the reality for too many of our children. And too often, the adults in their lives respond with unhelpful diagnoses, therapy that addresses the behavior instead of the root, and ineffective support which leaves them vulnerable to all manner of future problems.
Here’s a little more about the problem of child trauma in the United States and what we can do about it.
Types of Trauma
Abuse and Neglect
According to the National Children’s Alliance, nearly 700,000 American children are exposed to abuse and neglect each year. Of these:
- 75% experienced neglect
- 17.2% experienced physical abuse
- 8.4% suffered sexual abuse
Unfortunately, 90% of the abusers in these children’s lives were related to the victims.
Many of these types of trauma can cause a little-known disorder in children called CPTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder). While PTSD centers around a single traumatic event, CPTSD focuses on the effects of long-term exposure to a traumatic situation, especially abuse or neglect over a period of many years.
Prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol
The National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome reports that one in every 100 children is born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder–a disorder caused by alcohol use by a pregnant individual.
In addition, using drugs such as tobacco, cocaine, marijuana, opioids, and methamphetamine while pregnant can cause a host of issues from low birth weight to addiction upon birth. Many drugs can alter your child’s brain and cognitive abilities permanently.
It is for this reason that the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome recommends no alcohol or drug use for individuals that suspect they might be pregnant.
Domestic violence in the home
A 2011 study by the Department of Justice found that over one in four children (26%) will be exposed to some form of family violence throughout their lifetime. Of these, 90% will be an eyewitness to these events. About 50% of children will try to yell to get the perpetrator to stop the abuse; nearly 44% will try to escape; and nearly 24% of children will attempt to call for help. The DOJ recommended that awareness, prevention, and detection efforts around this issue improve.
Homelessness and Poverty
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network found that, “Families living in urban poverty often encounter multiple traumas over many years. Further, they are less likely than families living in more affluent communities to have access to the resources that may facilitate the successful negotiation of their traumatic experiences.”
In addition, the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry reported that those with a low socioeconomic status (less than $25,000 per year) were four times more likely to develop PTSD than those earning $100,000 per year.
Effects of Trauma
The effects of trauma can appear throughout a child’s development. If the trauma is not adequately addressed early in the child’s life, the issues will only compound.
The sad reality for children that undergo trauma early in life is that they reside in foster care and group homes since infancy; in fact, many K-5 children become wards of the government before they can speak.
Starting in grade school, children may begin to exhibit the effects of trauma:
- Emotional distress
- Social anxiety
- Suicidal ideation
- Physical and verbal aggression
- Maladaptive behaviors
- Attention-seeking (both positive and negative)
In addition to (or often because of) these traits, children with a background of trauma exhibit increased behavioral concerns, such as fighting with students and peers, an inability to appropriately make and maintain positive relationships, impaired social interactions, cognitive deficits, and low self-esteem. Children may also exhibit distrust and defensiveness toward all adults–even those that want to help them.
Too often, children exhibiting these symptoms are given blanket diagnoses focus on the behavior, instead of treating the trauma behind the behavior. Diagnoses such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Attention Deficit Disorder or Severe Emotional Impairment segregate students with unhelpful labels and often further stigmatize the children affected. This stigma only further adds to the child’s trauma, as they continue to relive their past of feeling less than or not important.
Early recognition of the trauma and appropriate interventions are crucial for a child’s emotional development. Without these appropriate interventions, the likelihood of a child successfully getting through school decreases. Empirical studies suggests children exposed to trauma are likely to drop out of school by their junior year of high school, fail to find adequate employment, and/or experience homelessness; this only furthers the cycle which can lead to addiction and other mental illnesses.
On an individual level, focusing on behavior modification without consideration of the underlying trauma can do more harm than good in a child’s development and create a lasting relationship of distrust between the child and their caregivers.
Instead, the Child Trauma Institute has compiled a list of effective treatments for childhood trauma. Top on their list is EMDR, though the list also includes progressive counting, trauma-focused CBT, and prolonged exposure.
And as we continue to see high-profile cases of abuse being put through the news, we can hope that increased awareness will lead to growth and understanding throughout society.
We can also look to the American Psychological Association’s recommendations for improving trauma care in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities (and indeed, through all the United States):
- Integration of mental health care and trauma screening in primary care clinics, emergency rooms, OBGYN facilities, community social service agencies, community centers, schools, and/or religious communities
- Improved access to mental health services, “by providing needed resources such as transportation, childcare, care outside of typical business hours and providers who speak the primary language of those needing care”
- A focus on systemic marginalization: “Interventions focused on social justice, empowerment of individuals and communities, and giving voice to silenced and marginalized perspectives are needed.”