The impact of trauma


Since the beginnings of these theories there has been a developing understanding of the impact of trauma on child. It is now more publicly acknowledged that trauma affects a child in the short term and long term in significant ways. Trauma affects the cognitive process because thoughts and memory are affected by the negative experience. The impact of trauma is also experienced in the area of affect because the emotional responses to trauma can be very powerful, intense and usually includes terror. Another area of impact is behavioural as the child responds either with ‘acting out’ or ‘acting in’ behaviours in order to cope with the overwhelming feelings. Finally the impact of trauma is often demonstrated in the child’s social ability with challenges in interpersonal relationships often with issues of trust.

James (1989) states the following four consequences of experiencing trauma:

Dysregulation of affect and the inability to modulate intense emotions.
For example a child may stub their toe and scream and shout as if they have had a major accident as they do not know how to calm themselves in the face of pain.

Persistent fear state marked by primitive survival responses such as fright- flight-freeze.
For example a child may run away or fight another child in response to feelings of shame or fear despite their cognitive reasoning not wanting to draw attention to themselves or get into trouble.

Disorder of memory and trauma related memory disorganization with flashbacks (intense memory recollection) and dissociation (sudden alteration in the integrative function of consciousness)
For example a child may be calmly sitting in their classroom when they react to the sound of a door slamming and they throw their chair to the floor and hide under the desk but then are not aware how they got there.

Avoidance of intimacy and aversion to physical and emotional closeness that leads to feelings of vulnerability.
For example a child may be involved in fighting other children and rejecting them whilst also saying they feel lonely and wanting friends.

It also needs to be acknowledged that when a child experiences trauma, there is an impact on their development where damage can occur in terms of delaying or distorting important developmental processes.