The Family Project: Childhood trauma
Q. I have been hearing so much lately about the effects of “trauma” on children. How do I know if my children have ever faced it? Does trauma include only major things like abuse, or are there smaller incidents that can have the same effect?
The panel began by noting that the word “trauma” is used a lot in broad terms and not always accurately.
“The word is being used so much in the common language today that its meaning and importance is getting watered down,” panelist Michael Ramsey said.
“That worries me,” Ramsey continued, “because there is so much coming out about how impactful trauma can be on children’s development.”
There are different ways that trauma can be experienced,” said panelist Pam Wallace. “It can be from abuse, domestic violence, parental drug use, a car accident, loss of a significant person, living in poverty or being bullied.”
Wallace said that it is not the event itself that causes a child to be traumatized. It is how the individual processes the event and copes with it. “What affects one child may not affect another,” Wallace said.
Referring to the parent’s question about knowing if her children ever experienced trauma, Wallace recommended looking for sudden or extreme changes in behavior. “Like any diagnosis, you are looking for symptoms,” said Wallace.
“Something can be stressful, but not traumatic,” said panelist Chad Stefanyak. “It differs with each individual, and depends in part on the number and frequency of the traumatic events, as well as their severity.” It also depends on a person’s resiliency, Stefanyak added.
Resiliency is defined as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, panelist Jackie Gisonti said. What makes some people able to cope better than others are their support networks, Gisonti continued. Other factors can be biological or environmental.
Picking up on the biological aspect. Ramsey said, “We are learning more about brain development and how traumatic situations trigger a fight-or-fright response. Exposure to these situations repeatedly at a young age trains the brain to react in ways that lead to changes in development,” Ramsey said. “The child will act differently because of his survival tendency.”
Ramsey said that sustained stress, such as poverty, can also trigger fight-or-flight responses that affect how an individual, particularly an adolescent, views the world and makes decisions.
Stefanyak suggested that parents Google ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience), which provides a list of specific types of trauma, along with information about resiliency and studies on how trauma affects children’s brain development.
One study on the ACE website, he said, shows a link between childhood trauma and later physical conditions.
This week’s team of parenting experts are: Pam Wallace, Program Coordinator, Project Child, a program of Valley Youth House; Michael Ramsey, MS, LPC, Program Supervisor, Valley Youth House; Jackie Gisonti, Housing Supervisor, Valley Youth House, and Chad Stefanyak, School Counselor.
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The Family Project is a collaboration of the Lehigh Valley Press Focus section and Valley Youth House’s Project Child.
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