Have you ever wondered why a psychologist always looks to a person's past to evaluate their present? In most cases, it is because that individual has experienced some form of trauma. According to the American Psychological Association (APA, 2023), trauma is “any disturbing experience that results in significant fear, helplessness, dissociation, confusion, or other disruptive feelings intense enough to have long-lasting negative effect on a person’s attitudes, behavior, and other aspects of functioning” . The APA goes further by stating that “traumatic events include those caused by human behavior (e.g., rape, war, industrial accidents) as well as by nature (e.g., earthquakes) and often challenge an individual’s view of the world as a just, safe, and predictable place”.
Trauma impacts people whether they experience one or multiple traumatic events. However, it is not always clear or even very well known what the psychological impacts are. The term trauma itself tends to be too generalized, as there are different types and degrees to which one is affected. When thinking about trauma, it is most commonly associated with its comorbid disorders, rather than solely on its own psychological impacts. It is important to understand that though different traumatic events have common affects, these commonalities can not simply be congregated under the term trauma. Generalizing the term takes away from comprehending the individual’s psychological well-being and thus limits their ability to receive adequate and beneficial treatment that is specific to that individual's traumatic experience.
Trauma serves as an umbrella term, which encompasses various forms and can lead to further varying disorders, such as PTSD, acute stress disorder and adjustment disorders to name a few. Forms of trauma include, but are not limited to victimization (forms of neglect and abuse),witnessing violence, discrimination based on race, sex, sexual orientation, religious beliefs or having a member of one’s family/close friend murdered (Larson et al., 2017). Furthermore, it is evident that trauma does not impact a certain group solely but anyone, at any age can be traumatized. Thus, it is salient to comprehend the effects on a child’s development, as it relates to an adolescent and adult.
Trauma impacts both neurodevelopmental and psychosocial development of children. Neurodevelopmental development is “the physical and biological growth of the brain, nervous, and endocrine systems and psychosocial development [is the] personality formation including morals, values, social conduct, capacity for relationships with other individuals, and respect for social institutions and more” (PUTNAM, 2006). At a certain level these two processes are linked, however it is important to first understand them separately, especially when wanting to understand the effects of maltreatment of a child. By the age of 3, a child's brain has grown to 90% capacity of an adult brain size, even though the child’s body is only 20% developed (citation - putnam). Being so, a child’s brain is malleable, in turn meaning that early negative effects on a child have great consequences on development.
Recent research has found that children and adolescents who are exposed to chronic trauma, are at a greater risk for developing mental health disorders, and are more likely to have complications and face failure in school (Larson et al., 2017). Additionally, a study has found that children of minority ethnic and racial groups and those living amongst poverty lines are at a more magnified “risk of developing anxiety, depression, conduct disorder, post traumatic disorder (PTSD), suicidal ideation, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and have lower GPAs than their peers who have not experienced trauma or victimization” (Larson et al., 2017). Therefore, certain marginalized groups are more prone to experience traumatic events that can lead to a psychological disorder.
Social and educational consequences often persist as they grow older. Maltreatment of victims coupled with traumatic effects lead to increased dropout and expulsion rates for children. Furthermore, childhood victims grow into adults who are more likely to be unemployed and imprisoned (PUTNAM, 2006). Chronic childhood trauma has led to a notable impact on academic performance. Supplementary to this, it has led to “disparities in access, utilization, quality, and funding of pediatric mental health care” (Larson et al., 2017). Children and adolescents that are exposed to trauma as mentioned before have declined educational and employment opportunities, but additionally face a more increased risk of chronic medical and mental health conditions and in some cases premature death (Larson et al., 2017).
It is important to understand that trauma ecompasses a variety of experiences that are not limited to, but include singular incidents or prolonged “incidents of injuries, painful, degrading, and exploitative acts” (PUTNAM, 2006). Further research needs to be conducted to better understand the specific effects that the different types of trauma have on an individual. It would also be interesting to better understand how the effects of trauma become more evident when it begins in a later part of life.
Understanding the complexities of the effects of trauma is essential in proposing treatment plans that are specific to the individuals' needs. A primary role of clinical care is to be able to provide patients with the adequate tools necessary to combat the negative implications that come with facing traumatic events. Current approximates state that “1 in 5 children and adolescents have a diagnosable mental health disorder that can cause severe lifetime impairment. Yet up to 70% of children and adolescents with mental health disorders do not receive mental health services” (Larson et al., 2017).
Proposed treatment notions should include having more trained officials in pediatrics offices (PUTNAM, 2006) and better outreach programs that serve and are catered to individuals of different age groups. Without targeted messages, individuals are not able to understand and identify the indicators of trauma which can delay their ability to access help. Treatment options should be more openly spoken about and accessible to the public, including curating information for various demographics. Thus, it is important to add specificity to the definition of trauma as it would improve an individuals’ self-awareness of their own trauma and therefore influence their aspiration to get treatment.
American Psychological Association. (n.d.). APA Dictionary of Psychology. American Psychological Association. https://dictionary.apa.org/trauma
Kartha, A., Brower, V., Saitz, R., Samet, J. H., Keane, T. M., & Liebschutz, J. (2008). The Impact of Trauma Exposure and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder on Healthcare Utilization among Primary Care Patients. Medical Care, 46(4), 388–393. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40221673
Larson, S., Chapman, S., Spetz, J., & Brindis, C. D. (2017). Chronic Childhood Trauma, Mental Health, Academic Achievement, and School-Based Health Center Mental Health Services. The Journal of school health, 87(9), 675–686. https://doi.org/10.1111/josh.12541
PUTNAM, F.W. (2006), The Impact of Trauma on Child Development. Juvenile and Family Court
Journal, 57: 1-11. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1755-6988.2006.tb00110.x