What is Childhood Trauma?
by Bob Murray, PhD.


Nearly every researcher agrees that early childhood traumas (i.e. those that happen before the age of six) lie at the root of most long-term depression and anxiety, and many emotional and psychological illnesses. Severe traumas can even alter the very chemistry and physiology of the brain itself! Among mental health professionals, and even some childhood development specialists, there is sometimes a lack of understanding over exactly what constitutes childhood trauma.

A seminal 1992 American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) report defines childhood abuse as "a repeated pattern of damaging interactions between parent(s) [or, presumably, other significant adults] and child that becomes typical of the relationship."

In addition to physical, sexual and verbal abuse, this can include anything that causes the child to feel worthless, unlovable, insecure, and even endangered, or as if his only value lies in meeting someone else's needs. Examples cited in the report include "belittling, degrading or ridiculing a child; making him or her feel unsafe [including threat of abandonment]; failing to express affection, caring and love; neglecting mental health, medical or educational needs."

The AAP also includes parental divorce in the list of potentially harmful events which can traumatize a child.

Many things on the AAP's list of factors leading to childhood trauma benefit from further definition. For example, what do "belittling" or "degrading" mean in terms of a child's development? What actions--or inactions--on the part of parents or child carers would lead little Tommy to feel degraded? Under this category I would include criticism, and even failure to praise him (for accomplishment, for effort as well as just for being a "great kid"), listen to his opinions, and take an interest in his activities or friends. Praise and encouragement are essential to a child's sense of competence and emotional security, and absence of positive feedback can be extremely damaging to a child's self-esteem.

Other stressors include parental fighting, domestic violence, and bullying, including failure to curb bullying behavior by siblings or peers. An absence of consistent rules and boundaries also makes a child feel unsafe.

According to the AAP, childhood trauma can also include witnessing community and televised violence. So Tommy may also grow to feel unsafe if he is allowed to watch violent movies or traumatic news footage on TV. In fact violent TV is seen by many researchers as one of the causes of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The important point is that a traumatic event or interaction must be a "repeated pattern" to cause lasting damage. The occasional slap on the wrist probably won't cause permanent harm; an ongoing pattern of corporeal punishment, or threat of such punishment, almost certainly will.

Of course not all traumatic experiences occur in the home or under a parent's supervision. Ostracism or exclusion by playmates or fellow kindergarteners has been shown to be extremely traumatic for a young child. Similarly being forced to sit still for long periods of time in day care, or at school (or at home) can be very stressful and is one of the factors that can lead to ADD/ADHD--especially in boys.

Other not-so-obvious early childhood traumas include being cut-off from nature, lack of a stimulating environment, poverty and racial discrimination (this latter has been shown to be a factor in some forms of schizophrenia). Moving home frequently is traumatic for a child (it has been linked to suicide in older children), as is a disruptive home life, including having to adapt to a parent's remarriage and being part of a new blended family (perhaps several in the course of childhood).

The kinds of childhood traumas that lead to depression, anxiety, PTSD, ADD/ADHD are rarely one-off events (even a divorce may be preceded by a long period of acrimony or instability). Single events, no matter how traumatic, are most often forgotten by young children since as the brain develops it disposes of the synaptic connections (links between brain cells or neurons) that "remember" them. Repeated events build up more of these connections and thus stay in the mind--though not necessarily in the recoverable memory.

Early childhood traumas such as the one's I've outlined are rather like ghosts in the mind--their presence is felt influencing our thoughts, beliefs and actions but they are rarely seen with clarity. Some early traumatic events can manifest themselves in ways that make us believe that other, quite different, traumas have happened to us. An example of this is how some hospital visits in very early childhood can lead to in adulthood to "recovered memories" of sexual abuse or even alien abduction (an operating theatre is very much like many of the descriptions given of extraterrestrial spaceships).

Some highly stressful events that occur during pregnancy can be passed from the mother to her unborn child via stress hormones such as noradrenalin or cortisol. A child can be born anxious or depressed! Some traumas are so severe that the resulting symptoms and behaviors can pass down through generations. Sexual or severe physical abuse are examples. A little girl can be traumatized by the abuse her mother suffered in her childhood, and may feel fearful as a result.

The most important thing to remember about childhood trauma, however, is that given a safe and supportive environment in which the child's fundamental needs for physical safety, emotional security, importance and attention are met, the damage that trauma and abuse cause can be mitigated and alleviated. Safe and trustworthy relationships are also a vital component in healing the effects of childhood trauma in adulthood, and create an environment in which the brain can safely begin the process of recovery.

Note: Consult a reputable healthcare practitioner or therapist if you are experiencing the effects of childhood trauma.

About the Author

Dr Bob Murray is a widely published psychologist and expert on emotional health and optimal relationships. Together with his wife and long-term collaborator Alicia Fortinberry, he is founder of the highly successful Uplift Program, and author of Raising an Optimistic Child (McGraw-Hill, 2006) and Creating Optimism (McGraw-Hill, 2004).

Disclaimer: The diagnosis and treatment of medical or psychiatric disorders requires trained professionals. The information provided in this article is for educational purposes only. It should NOT be used as a substitute for seeking professional help.