Understanding Trauma

Leah Tripp

Terms like “trauma” often conjure up images of terrible accidents, violence, or war in our minds. We tend to associate the concept of trauma with a singular event that inflicts deep psychological pain.

However, trauma can often be a product of ongoing negative experiences, and many children who have been adopted or are in foster care have experienced trauma of some kind. In order to love and care for these children in the healthiest way possible, it is important to understand the way trauma impacts emotional and psychological well-being.

Childhood trauma can be caused by a variety of situations, but most often hinges on experiences of abuse (verbal or physical) and neglect. Abuse and neglect have a long lasting impact on children due to the fact that these traumas occur while they are still cognitively developing.

Children who experience neglect and abuse during their formative years are receiving mixed messages regarding who to trust, what behavior is appropriate, and how to interact with people as a whole. The people they naturally trust (parents), have put them in danger in one way or another, thus making it difficult for them to identify what is safe and what is not.

In some instances, this instability can cause changes in a child’s brain structure. According to Counseling Today, children that are exposed to chronic neglect and abuse begin perceiving everything as a threat in order to defend themselves, which alters the prefrontal cortex. Their brain is constantly in “survival mode” rather than “learning mode,” which sometimes makes it more difficult for them to develop cognitive skills at a normal rate.

It is vital to understand that any child who has been removed from their biological parents has experienced trauma in some way. The severity of this trauma ranges based on situation, but it is there nonetheless.

Recent studies have shown that even infants, who are often deemed “too young to remember,” experience trauma.

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According to the Center for Youth and Family Solutions, unborn babies are capable of auditory processing as early as the second trimester. This means that when a child is born and then removed from the voice that they heard in utero, their brain experiences confusion and depravity.

While it is important to understand the instances and effects of trauma, it is also important to realize that the symptoms of emotional trauma can be decreased through coping strategies and interventions by the child’s caretakers.

While counseling and other professional interventions are highly recommended, emotional support on behalf of family members, foster parents, and adoptive parents is vital to helping a child who has experienced trauma.

Often, childhood trauma is a result of repeated patterns of instability. Therefore, showing a child who has experienced trauma that they are in a safe, secure environment with people who love and care for them is integral to the process of growth and healing. If you’d like to be a part of providing a child with stability and safety, consider reaching out to AGAPE of North Carolina regarding foster care, adoption, or respite care.

For more information regarding childhood trauma and parenting, visit the U.S. Children’s Bureau for resources.