Dr. Lakshmy Menon, a neonatologist and pediatrician, tells how she met a 10-year-old girl. Her parents brought her in after being concerned about her frequent complaints of abdominal pain and subsequent absence from school. After a series of questions about her pain and puberty, the doctor asked to speak with the young woman one on one, only to discover that she had been transferred from her previous place of study to a new city and she was having difficulties. coping with her her father was almost always absent and her mother was always overworked. She didn’t want to stay with her parents and she was emotionally hurt. Childhood trauma, says the expert, manifests itself in different ways. But it is a delicate matter that must be handled with care.
Negative life experiences can leave indelible marks on young minds. They end up shaping the way we behave, respond and react to situations as children and even as adults. “Infancy is a vulnerable time where many neural connections and networks in the brain are formed due to the various experiences they go through,” says Dr Lakshmy Menon, Consultant Neonatologist and Pediatrician, Cloudnine Group of Hospitals, Bellandur, Bengaluru.
Types of childhood trauma
Trauma can be of different types depending on how it is experienced. The expert explains it in detail.
1. Physical trauma
According to the expert, this is seen especially in dysfunctional families with strained relationships between parents. Sometimes it’s a parent who abuses substances and considers all the weaker members of the family to be “fair game.” Or a parent who is particularly experiencing psychological or mental health problems abuses the child at home. Physical trauma can range from ‘shaken baby syndrome’ (brain trauma), hand/leg fractures, contusion to the head, or soft tissue injury to any part of the body. These children may come with obvious or covert injuries that are not easily explained.
2. Sexual trauma
Sexual trauma occurs when the child engages in sexual conduct with an adult or someone older than the child or in a position of authority. The reason for this is solely for the enjoyment of the adult or used for nefarious purposes. These children exhibit early characteristics of ‘sexualisation’ or become more withdrawn, have sleep problems, bed wetting, eating disorders and general avoidance behaviour. Talking about sexual abuse can help reduce its mental health effects.
3. Psychological trauma
Children can suffer psychological trauma when actions are designed to create insecurities or fear of abandonment, or to create fear of harm from loved ones, cast derogatory doubts about them, scold them in front of others, or insult or scold them. Abandonment is also a form of threat when a child’s basic needs are not met. Leaving children alone for long periods of time can also lead to this type of childhood trauma.
Signs and Side Effects of Childhood Trauma
When the child is exposed to stress but is surrounded by loving and caring relationships, the ability to deal with negative emotions is easier. Children, by default, trust their caregivers. But when that trust is broken due to abuse, they realize that the world is ‘unsafe or terrible’. These children may develop attachment problems and have trouble regulating their emotions. They can very often react out of proportion to situations and as adults tend to be more susceptible to stress.
It can also lead to various mental health disorders in children. Here are some symptoms of childhood trauma and how it can appear:
* When encountering stress, one experiences rapid breathing, rapid heart rate, feeling ‘frozen’ and unable to cope.
* Children with a history of trauma often have chronic headaches, fatigue, stomach aches, eating disorders.
* They often grow up to smoke or substance abuse or problems like diabetes due to eating disorders.
* These children may have trouble regulating their reactions to situations.
* Children with trauma are often very attentive and perceive situations as ‘dangerous’.
* Some children react in the opposite way and put themselves in danger. These children often experience symptoms of depression that can haunt them into adulthood.
* Traumatized children have problems with cognition and problem processing and reasoning. They grow up under the constant threat of survival, so their mental faculties are totally compromised in that mode. They may have difficulties with language and abstract reasoning and often need help with academics.
Also read: Learn how childhood trauma can expose you to health risks in later life
Childhood trauma and health problems.
A large group of studies have concluded that childhood trauma of any kind increases the risk of mental and physical illness later in adulthood. It can, most importantly, lead to serious psychiatric disorders, including depression, anxiety, psychosis, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Chronic physical health problems, such as rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and lung disease, are also higher in people with childhood trauma.
Suffering from childhood trauma is said to have tripled the risk of mental health problems in adulthood. Recognizing the early signs of trauma in children and treating them early will go a long way in ensuring they are healthy and productive adults.