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How does trauma affect emotional development in children?

Posted on: January 31, 2024

The Oxford English Dictionary defines trauma as “a physical injury or wound, or a powerful psychological shock that has damaging effects”. Unfortunately, 1 in 3 children are potentially exposed to at least one traumatic event by the time they are 18.

A child’s early years can have lifelong physical, social, and emotional impacts. While positive experiences and environments can set a young child on a more robust life path, traumatic experiences or environments during those formative years can have long-lasting, detrimental impacts.

What is childhood trauma?

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) refers to childhood trauma as experiences of distressing or harmful events that occur during a person’s early years of life. These events can profoundly impact a child’s physical, emotional, and psychological wellbeing and may have long-lasting effects into adulthood. Two principal criteria typically characterise childhood trauma:

  • An experience which includes the duration and type of trauma
  • A child’s reaction to trauma exposure, such that these experiences overwhelm a child’s ability to cope and cause a feeling of extreme fear, helplessness, or horror

Traumatic experiences can take various forms, including:

  • physical, emotional or sexual abuse
  • neglect, witnessing domestic violence
  • discrimination, prejudice, and racism
  • experiencing natural disasters
  • involved in accidents
  • serious illnesses.

These traumatic events can disrupt a child’s sense of safety and security, leading to feelings of fear, helplessness, and vulnerability. The impact of trauma can be far-reaching and varies from person to person. Some of the effects of trauma include:

  • difficulties forming and maintaining healthy relationships
  • low self-esteem
  • emotional and behavioural problems
  • academic difficulties
  • physical health issues.

Consequently, individuals who have suffered adverse childhood experiences may be at risk of mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse. However, it is important to note recent research suggests not all children experience trauma after a traumatic event or develop long-term negative effects. Several factors influence long-term outcomes, such as the severity and duration of the trauma; the child’s age and developmental stage; the presence of supportive relationships; and access to appropriate interventions and resources via health services and psychiatry support. 

Does childhood trauma stunt emotional growth?

Emotional growth refers to the development of emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and the ability to navigate and regulate emotions effectively. It is a crucial aspect of overall development and is vital in shaping one’s relationships, behaviour, and mental wellbeing.

A recent study links psychological trauma in childhood with an increased risk of developing a mental disorder years later. Furthermore, a separate study found the volumes of three critical areas of parts of the brain (hippocampus) were reduced by up to 6.5% in people exposed to instances of maltreatment – such as verbal or physical abuse from parents – in their early years. This research reaffirms a growing body of evidence that child abuse or maltreatment raises the risk of mental illnesses such as personality disorders or depression and anxiety well into adulthood.

One of the primary ways child trauma stunts emotional growth is by disrupting the development of secure attachments and trust. Secure attachments with caregivers are essential for a child’s emotional wellbeing and provide a foundation for healthy relationships later in life. However, trauma can disrupt the formation of these attachments, leading to difficulties in trusting others and forming healthy relationships. Consequently, complex trauma can result in emotional detachment, fear of intimacy, and challenges maintaining long-term relationships.

Trauma can also impact emotional regulation; it can overwhelm a child’s ability to cope with and regulate their emotions effectively. Subsequently, children and younger people may experience intense and unpredictable emotions, have difficulty expressing or managing their feelings, and struggle with emotional self-regulation, leading to emotional dysregulation, mood swings, and challenges in managing stress and anxiety.

Furthermore, trauma can negatively impact a child’s self-esteem and self-worth. Traumatic experiences can lead to feelings of shame, guilt, and worthlessness, which can significantly impact a child’s sense of self and confidence. Long-term trauma can lead to a negative self-image of themselves and struggle with feelings of inadequacy, leading to low self-esteem and self-destructive behaviours.

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