The Importance of Treating Childhood Trauma

The effects of childhood trauma manifest in many forms, often leading to misdiagnosis, stigmatization, and overmedication, particularly in marginalized populations. Here, we address the need for more trauma-informed care providers.

Trauma is an all-too-pervasive problem that impacts people from every walk of life. It arises when we’re exposed to any number (from one to several) of discrete events that are emotionally painful and even life-threatening; they signal to us that we have experienced danger, and they can be damaging to our long-term mental, physical, spiritual, emotional, and social health.

Trauma ranges from neglect, to bullying and social ostracism, to physical/emotional/sexual abuse, to poverty, to systemic oppression, to living through a war or natural disaster, to many other distressful and painful experiences. Trauma doesn’t necessarily mean that someone lived through these things firsthand; they may have witnessed them instead, like in the context of domestic violence between other members of the family. Overall, trauma is both an individual issue and a communal one, which is why it’s so important to understand.

Addiction, mental health disorders, and behavioral problems are difficult to treat if we don’t look at the psychological and emotional trauma behind them. Trauma-informed care acknowledges and respects the life experiences that have contributed to a person’s psychological state, which makes it easier to ensure positive health outcomes—not to mention, better patient engagement and adherence to treatment.

This is especially true when it comes to childhood trauma, wherein medication should be the last option but is too commonly treated as a first step toward healing.

Unfortunately, there’s a strong likelihood that mental-health professionals are misdiagnosing childhood trauma when they see it, especially given the disproportionate number of mental disorders attributed to children in foster care. Many advocates have spoken out about the overmedication of foster children. One in four children are on psychotropic medication, which is over four times the rate of other children. On top of that, they’re often prescribed multiple medications, often for the purpose of reining in “difficult” behavior. Many of these children are not receiving therapy or counseling to work through their trauma—even though we know that more than 75% of kids in foster care have experienced 2.5 more times abuse, neglect, and trauma than other kids, and are likely to experience at least four adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) centered around abuse or neglect.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as well as Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 60% of adults and 66% of kids have been impacted by childhood trauma. At the same time, it’s possible that the numbers are actually much higher, as childhood trauma is underreported and likely to be pushed under the rug—sometimes never identified for what it is.

We can’t underestimate the impact of trauma on our early development, as well as our sense of safety and well-being far into the future. Because trauma-informed care can be out of reach for many, too many people end up bearing the onus of despair and loneliness that trauma can leave in its wake.

There are many recognizable signs of traumatic stress in children, ranging from infancy to adolescence:

  • Excessive crying or screaming
  • Anger that might result in acting out against peers and adults (hitting, punching, name-calling, yelling, etc.)
  • Persistent nightmares and difficulty sleeping
  • Poor eating
  • Extreme weight loss
  • Anxiety and fearfulness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Depression and withdrawal
  • Eating disorders and other forms of self-harm
  • Substance abuse
  • Risky/early sexual behavior

All of these are coping behaviors that can emerge from childhood trauma, but a mental-health professional isn’t always necessarily looking for signs of trauma when working with children. It’s a common mistake to diagnose a child with anxiety, depression, ADHD, or any number of disorders that detract from what might have caused the behaviors to begin with.

When we see children “acting out,” we have to recognize that these are attempts to locate psychological safety and mitigate pain, fear, stress, and anger that are associated with what they’ve experienced. When we don’t affirm their reality, we run the risk of not healing underlying, unresolved pain that requires compassionate attention. While the intangible lifetime costs of trauma can’t be calculated, a 2015 study calculated the tangible lifetime costs of trauma in the U.S. to be $830,000 per victim, or $2 trillion for the overall country.

There’s no doubt that we’re a collectively traumatized nation. Again, we respond to that trauma in a variety of ways—but a lot of the symptoms we’ve seen in the past two-and-a-half years (rage, insomnia, fatigue, mood swings, depression, numbness, etc.) demonstrate that many of us are hurting…but the causes of the hurt might not be something we’re effectively addressing. Often, children who have been traumatized live for years with the mistaken belief that they are to blame for what happened to them. So, if you know someone who has been the victim of childhood trauma (and this might be you), it’s important to normalize and acknowledge their feelings, whatever they are. This helps to orient us toward compassion and gentle acceptance, which can help the healing process. We can also provide assurance to ourselves and others that we are not responsible for what we went through. In addition, it’s crucial to seek the help of an evidence-based trauma therapist, who can help move us toward recovery by locating and treating the underlying causes of our distress.

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