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Trauma From Early Childhood

Trauma from early childhood can have a lasting effect on health and wellbeing, even into adulthood. The landmark ACE (adverse childhood experience) studies show that the more traumas a person experiences in early childhood, the higher their risk for poor health outcomes later in life including mental health issues and unhealthy patterns of behaviour.

Children are particularly vulnerable to trauma because they don’t have the emotional and cognitive skills to process events that can threaten their physical or psychological survival. They also have a deep dependence on the people they trust to guide them through difficult situations and protect them physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually. They may have trouble telling their trusted caregivers when they are feeling overwhelmed, and can therefore be misunderstood and treated as challenging or unruly.

The kinds of things that can be traumatic for a child are varied, and can include accidents or disasters (e.g. car accidents, bushfires, a serious illness, or the death of a loved one) or witnessing violence or abuse. A traumatic event may be ongoing, or it may occur once and then have a long-term impact on a child’s sense of self, attachment with their caregivers, development, and mental health. It can also impact their ability to learn, and can disrupt their family systems.

Children who are exposed to trauma may develop complex trauma, which refers to a group of different traumatic experiences that have been sustained over time. For example, a child who has been physically, sexually and/or emotionally abused by their caregivers may have experienced several types of trauma, and each may have impacted them in unique ways. Children trauma form early childhood who experience complex trauma can often have difficulty forming relationships and may have difficulty connecting with peers.

In addition, complex trauma can also cause a child to have an altered immune system and may contribute to their developing asthma, digestive problems or other physical ailments. It can affect their mood and lead to self-blame, shame, depression or other mental health issues, and it can lead to negative coping mechanisms such as dissociation or substance misuse.

Understanding that trauma from early childhood can have a profound impact on the health of children is important because it is preventable, and because it can be treated. It is crucial to recognise the signs and symptoms, as they vary based on age and developmental stage.

It’s important to note that it can be hard to know whether or not a child is struggling with trauma, and symptoms can look very similar to many other conditions, including depression and anxiety disorders. It is therefore important to always consider a child’s history, their environment and caregiving systems when considering if they are showing signs of trauma. A child may also have a ‘protective factor’ that buffers some of the effects of trauma, such as their temperament or supportive relationships. They may also be managing trauma in conjunction with other mental health conditions. The links between mental health and trauma are intricate and intertwined.

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