The Impact of Trauma on Children

Each year, five million children witness domestic violence in the United States. Although children are affected by domestic violence, there are ways in which the adults in their lives can help them. Oftentimes, people are under the assumption that children are not impacted by things that happen during their childhood. While people frequently make comments about how children don’t understand what’s going on or how they will not remember things they have witnessed, it’s important to recognize how witnessing domestic violence impacts a child’s overall development. It is also important to note that children who are exposed to domestic violence are fifteen times more likely to be physically assaulted or sexually abused. The United States Board on Child Abuse and Neglect suggests that domestic violence may be the single major precursor to child abuse and neglect in the United States. 

Growing up in a home where domestic violence is occurring is an ongoing traumatic event. Trauma can be described as “the normal reactions of normal people to events that, for them, are unusual or abnormal” (Parkinson, 2000, p.29).

Some important factors to keep in mind are:

  • Children are aware of the abuse. Even if they don’t see it, they can hear and can sense what is going on.
  • Children’s perceptions of what happened matter just as much as what happened.
  • Children often blame themselves and believe the abuse is their fault.
  • Children still love their abusive parent and also fear the abusive person at the same time.

Common trauma symptoms based on age include:

0-3 year olds

  • Fear of separation from mom, being clingy
  • Problems sleeping or nightmares
  • Toileting problems
  • Startle response to noises or movement
  • Increased signs of fearfulness
  • Increased fussiness, crying or neediness
  • Loss or decrease of speech or motor skills
  • Withdrawal, decreased responsiveness

3-5 year olds

  • Repeated retelling of the traumatic event
  • Behavior or mood changes
  • Obvious anxiety and fearfulness
  • Regressing / acting younger than usual
  • Loss or decrease of previous skills related to language, toileting and  self-care
  • Sleep disturbances such as nightmares, night terrors or fear of going to sleep
  • Withdrawal
  • Fear of separation from caretakers
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Physical complaints of aches and pains
  • Increased acting out

5-12 year olds

  • Bed-wetting
  • Low self-esteem
  • Aggressiveness, bullies peers
  • Engages in violent acts, hurts peers, siblings and animals
  • Stealing
  • Few or no friends
  • Failing grades and learning disabilities
  • Self-abusive

12-18 year olds

  • Stomach aches, ulcers
  • Severe acne
  • Eating disorders
  • Loneliness and isolation
  • Anxiety and fear
  • Very violent, criminal activity
  • Violent dating
  • Poor school performance
  • Few friends
  • Self-harming and/or suicidal behaviors
  • Poor job potential

This list above can seem overwhelming to look at. It is important to note that some of these behaviors are a part of a child’s developmental stages. Every child responds differently to experiencing trauma so it is important for the safe adults in a child’s life to pay attention to these changes in behavior. 

Safe caregivers play a key role in helping to support a traumatized child. 

At school, children may be experiencing these symptoms, which can be confused with defiance or rebellion. This means that the child’s safe caregiver will have to advocate for the child and seek support for the school staff to help the child be successful at school. It is also very important for your child’s pediatrician to have a full history when making assessments and diagnosis, which includes any emotional trauma a child has experienced. Trauma symptoms can be mistaken for other medical issues if the doctor does not have the full picture of what’s going on. While it can be difficult sharing personal details about your life with people in your community, it’s an important way to help your child.

Safe caregivers can also support children by teaching them that it is okay to have confusing and mixed up feelings. Caregivers should try to give their children opportunities for healthy expression via words, play, music or safe interactions with adults. Remember that young children primarily communicate via play. It is so important for caregivers to embrace the power of play and spend time playing with their children. Another thing that can be helpful is to validate your child’s emotions. This can be done by simply saying something like “I can see you are really mad right now” or “That sounds so disappointing.” Help your children label their feelings by saying things like “Whoa! Look how big your smile is! You must be feeling so happy right now!” or “I can tell that you are really frustrated about your homework right now.” Help your child figure out what to do if they are having overwhelming thoughts and feelings. Activities such as physical exercise, playing with toys, artwork, deep breathing and meditation can be used to help children cope with these feelings. Check out Go Noodle for some cool videos that can help your kids stay moving even though they may be stuck inside. 

Sometimes all of this can get really overwhelming for a safe caregiver, so please reach out for support from a counselor. At Genesis, we work with children ages two and up. We use Play Therapy, Eye Movement Desensitization (EMDR) and Trauma Focused Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) to help children process trauma they have experienced. We also work closely with moms through parent consultations to help her identify ways she can support her children through this difficult time. Moms may need their own counseling too, and it’s okay to ask for help. We are here for you. Also, check out our new Client Services Parenting webinars on our YouTube page for more support. 

Other professionals and community members can help too.

Below are some ways that others can help:

  • Share information about domestic violence with peers and other professionals.
  • Do not confront the alleged abuser. If you are concerned about abuse happening, speak to the victim privately. 
  • Help kids get involved with extracurricular activities/sports. 
  • If a child makes an outcry, believe them. It is very scary to tell anyone about abuse you have experienced and how you respond to an outcry has a significant impact on the child. 
  • Keep safety in mind. The most dangerous time for a woman is when she leaves the relationship, and therefore, leaving is not always the easiest option.
  • Don’t blame the victim. Trauma affects parenting skills, so before passing judgment, take time to get an understanding of the big picture.
  • Teach children ways to cope with their feelings: deep breaths, jumping jacks and dancing are three easy things you can do with a child to help them regulate.
  • Don’t shame a child. We don’t know what happened to them or what will happen later. Keep in mind that children act out because they have a need that has been unmet, not because they are “bad kids.”
  • Be a child’s “safe adult” and help kids create a safety plan. Let the children in your life know that they can talk to you if they need support. 
  • Call Genesis! We are here to support the community as a whole. If you know a family who is experiencing domestic violence and are unsure of what to do please contact us, and we can find a way to help. 

Written by Amber M. Nealy, Assistant Director of Clinical and Professional Services