Applied Psychology

Trauma in Toddlers

Dec 09, 2021 | By Saranne Durham
Trauma in Toddlers - SACAP
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One of the biggest challenges in identifying trauma in toddlers is communication. A conversation with a toddler requires a fair amount of guess work and at times some imagination. Toddlers feel emotions deeply, are usually keenly observant and understand more than most give them credit for. They’re still learning to talk – how to say words and what the best way to string them together is. Therefore, they aren’t always able to ask the questions they want to or need to. Nor are they able to adequately verbalise their responses or emotions. Which means, unless someone unpacks things with them, they are left to interpret what’s happening around them for themselves.

What causes Trauma in Toddlers?

Trauma in Toddlers can be as a result of intentional violence or it can be caused by natural disasters. Age does not protect a child from trauma. It just prevents them from being able to verbalise their reactions and feelings. Essentially, trauma is defined by how someone experiences something. A lack of understanding or a misinterpretation of something witnessed, could also result in a toddler being traumatised. Thus, even in an every-day setting if a child doesn’t feel protected or safe, trauma can result. Additionally, when trauma affects a primary caregiver, a child can also be impacted.

10 Possible Causes of Trauma:

  1. Experiencing or witnessing violence
  2. Bullying
  3. Physical, emotional and/or mental abuse
  4. Sexual abuse
  5. Neglect
  6. Lack of stability
  7. Terrorism and war
  8. Medical procedures
  9. Sudden loss of a parent or caregiver
  10. Natural Disasters

“Causes of Toddler Trauma range from intentional violence to natural disasters.”

The Impact of Childhood Trauma

Children are made more vulnerable through traumatic experiences. It can result in developmental risks and have a life-long impact on them. For example, it has been linked to poor academic performance, behavioural challenges, an inability to appropriately regulate emotions, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mental and physical health problems.

Autism and Trauma

Trauma can make living with conditions, such as autism, more difficult. It can also make autism worse. In some cases, trauma can also mimic some of the symptoms of autism. Diagnosing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD) in younger children is difficult. Which is complicated further, because until recently the awareness of PSTD in kids was quite limited. Thus, PTSD could mask itself within an autism spectrum, especially if caregivers aren’t aware that a child has been traumatised. For example, children with autism may be sensitive to loud noises and bright lights. They might also battle to communicate and be uncomfortable in new surroundings. Similarly, children with PSTD could exhibit these behaviours.

Identifying Trauma in Younger Children

Younger children battle to express themselves. Therefore, they are likely to show their struggles through how they function and change in their behaviour. 

Three Key Questions to ask about a potentially traumatised child:

  1. Have they lost interest in things they usually enjoyed doing?
  2. Has there been a sudden change in their behaviour?
  3. Are they battling to function in their every-day activities?

These are 10 possible Trauma Symptoms in Younger Children:

  1. Sleep disturbances.
  2. Difficulties in soothing / calming them down.
  3. Reacting to triggers, which are linked to an event or experience.
  4. Post traumatic (repetitive) play.
  5. Depressive Symptoms: loss of appetite, demotivated, avoiding previously enjoyed activities.
  6. Unusually reactive: Easily startled, intense fearfulness, tearful, clingy or sudden tantrums.
  7. Sudden avoidance of bright or flickering lights, noise and new surroundings.
  8. Avoiding eye contact.
  9. Slipping backwards, with regards to developmental milestones or seeming clumsier.
  10. Trying to avoid or refusing to go to school.

“Toddlers show that they are dealing with trauma through changes in their behaviour.”

How to help a Traumatized Toddler

Toddlers do remember traumatic events and experiences. Even if they battle to communicate, they can be quite good at understanding what we say. Therefore, after something has happened to particularly unsettle your child, the first thing to do is talk to them.

  1. Share Information: Talk about what happened in a step-by-step manner. Using a simple, brief and honest approach.
  2. Age Appropriate: Conversations need to be age appropriate. But they also need to explain enough so that a child understands what they experienced without further confusion.
  3. Don’t Sugar Coat: While your inclination may be to avoid specifics, brush over them or underplay them, it isn’t always a good approach. It could result in additional confusion, when your child tries to connect what you’ve said with how they experienced something.
  4. An Emotion Chart: As you help them unpack their experience, specifically ask them how they felt at various stages of the event. Having an emotion-chart for them to point at could be helpful to both of your understandings of their feelings.
  5. Draw Pictures: Kids often express emotions through pictures. Which provides you with another way to reassure them and explain things. As well as assess how they are recovering.

It may take several weeks for them to process and get through what happened. They are also likely to be more anxious about going to bed and need extra support during their bedtime routine. Essentially this makes reassuring them that you’re there for them, hugging and holding them and patiently listening to them, an ongoing process.

Interventions

If after 4 – 6 weeks your child has not reverted to their usual behavioural patterns, then often it’s advisable to seek professional help.

A child psychologist or trauma counsellor may recommend play therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), trauma counselling or family therapy. They are likely to encourage you to rebuild your child’s perception of trust and safety within your home. This could be done by maintaining routines, reassuring a child of their safety and being vigilant with promise keeping. Additionally, they may encourage you to talk about future plans as well as things that are going well around them. Healing takes time. It’s likely to require ongoing reassurance and patience from your side. However, it is well worth it as kids can and do bounce back. Especially when they feel loved, cared for and given the right support and encouragement when they need it.

Supporting Traumatised Kids

Are you interested in finding out more about how you can be part of assisting children to heal from trauma? If so, contact the South African College of Applied Psychology (SACAP) today. Book an appointment with an advisor find out more about studying towards a career that helps kids. SACAP offers courses in Psychology, Social Work and Community Development, Counselling and Coaching. In addition to on-campus study options, SACAP offers online live and flexi classes.

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