TIPP 2: Increase Awareness of the Signs and Symptoms of Trauma
It is estimated that more than 50% of all children in the United States under the age of 18 have experienced at least one adverse experience, such as abuse, surviving the death of a family member, or enduring the stress of racism. The large majority of children who experience one form of adversity also experience other forms of adversity, which suggests that adverse events cluster in families and communities.
Demographic factors—including race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and immigration status—are associated with well-documented disparities in health and life expectancy. A child’s risk of exposure to adversity (and thus trauma) also varies according to these demographic factors, with racial and ethnic minorities and those with other marginalized identities having a higher risk. Therefore, higher levels of exposure to early adversity and racism may account, at least in part, for an elevated risk of disease, early death, and other health disparities among Black Americans and other minority groups.
Indeed, research shows that children’s exposure to adversity can have profound and lasting effects, primarily by changing the architecture of the brain. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (2010), the particular areas of the brain most directly impacted by stressful and traumatic events are those responsible for learning and regulating emotions. Higher levels of and prolonged exposure to stress increases the risk for long-term “significant neurobiological disturbances” that result in lasting impairments to a child’s memory, emotional regulation, and behavior (NCTSN Core Curriculum on Childhood Trauma Task Force, 2012).
Although trauma exposure can produce diagnosable conditions and symptoms that can be assessed and treated by mental health professionals, many children with trauma histories are misdiagnosed, and behaviors consistent with trauma and PTSD are often mislabeled in schools. Behaviors that teachers and other school professionals may perceive as evidence of poor motivation, lack of interest, and defiance may actually be signs of post-traumatic stress and of the enduring effects of adversity. Thus, it is critical that all educators understand how trauma can affect behavior.
Common Signs and Symptoms of Trauma
Although these are common manifestations of trauma in children, it is critical to understand that there is variability in how trauma presents itself.
- Negative thinking
- Increased focus on death and safety
- Poor self-regulation
- Difficulty with executive functioning
- Regression or loss of previously acquired skills
- School avoidance or refusal
- Lack of motivation or interest
- Difficulty focusing on school work or keeping up with school tasks
- Challenges forming relationships with teachers or classmates
- Symptoms that mimic depression, such as difficulties sleeping and/or focusing, or a loss of appetite or overeating
- Symptoms that mimic anxiety disorders, such as obsessive or pervasive worry; or difficulty separating from parents, guardians, or other individuals
- Physical symptoms, such as unexplained aches or pains
- Child Mind Institute, u.d. National Child Traumatic Stress Network, u.d.; Herrenkohl & Favia, 2015; Walkley & Cox, 2015
- Child Mind Institute. (u.d). Signs of Trauma in Children. Child Mind Institute. https://childmind.org/article/signs-trauma-children/. National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (u.d.). About Child Trauma. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/about-child-trauma.
- Herrenkohl, T. I., & Favia, L. (2015). Building resilience by teaching and supporting the development of social emotional skills and wellness in vulnerable children. In U. Kumar (Ed.), Handbook of Resilience: A Psychosocial Perspective: Taylor and Francis.
- Walkley, M., & Cox, T. L. (2013). Building trauma-informed schools and communities. Children & Schools, 35(2), 123–126.