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Childhood Trauma: Symptoms & Behavior Information

Outline: Trauma symptoms manifest very differently in babies and toddlers than in children who are older, adolescents and adults.

Main Digest

Trauma is a reality for many babies and toddlers with special needs. Effective treatments for trauma do exist and they may be used with children as young as three years of age. Before effective treatment can happen; however, the condition must be correctly diagnosed first. For a diagnosis to be achieved, parents and health care professionals need to be aware of the symptoms of trauma.

Symptoms of Trauma in General

A person who has experienced severe trauma through combat, war, physical or sexual abuse or a form of natural disaster, or who has witnessed violence such as murder, or physical abuse might display one or more symptoms. What follows is information in regards to these symptoms.

Avoidance Behaviors: The person might make efforts to avoid any activities or people that could arouse recollection of the trauma.

Hypervigilance: Hypervigilance can involve preoccupation with potential, yet unknown, threats. People with trauma might constantly scan and watch their surroundings, or startle easily. The person may experience a persistent sense of insecurity.

Changes in Thinking and Mood: People who have experienced trauma may have trouble with recalling trauma-related events. They may have distorted beliefs about the world they are in, have a loss of interest in things they used to be interested in, or experience detached or negative emotions.

Re-experiencing Intrusion: A traumatized person may relive the event with recurring dreams or repeated flashbacks of the event. Children might not remember the whole event, yet may be haunted by a single image. They might express their fear by repeatedly play-acting an event or action. A person may experience difficulty with sleeping, disturbing or frightening dreams, outbursts of anger, hypervigilance, or intense distress if exposed to anything resembling the event.

Additional symptoms a person may experience in relation to trauma include:

Young children who experience trauma may present with agitated behavior, developmental regression in such things as speech or toilet training, or difficulties with concentrating.

Trauma and Behavior in Babies and Toddlers

Trauma symptoms manifest very differently in babies and toddlers than in children who are older, adolescents and adults. Due to the fact that babies are pre-verbal and toddlers' language development is limited, they are unable to verbalize their fears. They cannot describe a flashback or a nightmare. Yet the behaviors of babies and toddlers who have experienced significant trauma can offer clues that indicate the development of trauma. By closely watching their behaviors, adults might notice symptoms related to trauma. What follows are some of the behavioral symptoms to look for.

Nightmares: It is difficult to know if a screaming child was awakened by a nightmare, a diaper rash, an empty stomach, or an ear ache. If no physical reason exists for upsetting nighttime awakenings, the behavior could be a symptom of trauma.

Hypervigilance: A baby who is watchful, tense, or on guard even when they are in a familiar, safe and comfortable environment is experiencing hypervigilance. Adults often times consider the behavior to be a part of the child's personality. Yet the behavior could be a symptom of trauma.

Separation Anxiety or, 'Clinginess:' The majority of babies go through a clingy period between the ages of six and twelve months of age. But when a baby is clingy from a much earlier age and whose separation anxiety persists into toddler-hood, the behavior might indicate the development of trauma-related symptoms.

Difficulties with Sleeping: Difficulties with sleeping is not about children who do not need much sleep. It is about babies and toddlers who are afraid to be left alone in a room and are terrified to fall asleep. They might be afraid of the dark - not simply for a few weeks, but for many months. When they start to talk, they are often convinced that monsters live under their beds, or in their closets.

Fear or Avoidance of Places that Remind Them of Trauma: Babies and toddlers are intelligent and want to get away from frightening places that remind them of prior trauma. A child who experiences major surgery at birth with subsequent surgeries at an early age may remember strong emotions while going into surgery. They may attempt to escape because they want to avoid further surgery, for example.

Emotional Distress When Reminded of Initial Trauma: infants and toddlers who have been traumatized remember pre-verbal trauma as sounds, smells, visual images, emotions and physical sensations. When they are subjected to an environment that sounds, looks, smells and creates the same physical sensations, or evokes emotions, they often times respond with emotional distress. If the emotional distress occurs consistently when the child is exposed to that environment, it could be symptoms of trauma.

Repetitive Play: As a baby becomes a toddler and develops vocabulary, repetitive play might indicate the presence of trauma; not the play needed for a child to develop new skills. Yet play that continues or re-emerges over a number of months or even years may also be. Play that repeats a scenario similar to a trauma you know or suspect happened may occur. A child who was in a car accident playing car crash repeatedly is an example. A child who was in a tornado playing, 'hide in the basement,' more than seems healthy is another example. A child adopted from an orphanage consistently tying a doll to the bed is still another.

It is common for a child to exhibit some of these behaviors in the first weeks following a significant trauma. If the behaviors persist for more than three months after the initial event, treatment might be required. Treatment is difficult during a child's pre-verbal years, but treatment may also be very effective in children as young as three years of age.


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Cite: Journal: Disabled World. Language: English. Author: Disabled World. Electronic Publication Date: 2015/06/22. Last Revised Date: 2015/06/22. Reference Title: "Childhood Trauma: Symptoms & Behavior Information", Source: Childhood Trauma: Symptoms & Behavior Information. Abstract: Trauma symptoms manifest very differently in babies and toddlers than in children who are older, adolescents and adults. Retrieved 2019-11-14, from https://www.disabled-world.com/health/pediatric/trauma-child.php - Reference Category Number: DW#233-11449.
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