Trauma occurs when children are exposed to events or situations that overwhelm their ability to cope with what they have just experienced. In this handout, find an overview of trauma and adverse childhood experiences and their impact on children's development.
Child trauma occurs when children are exposed to events or situations that overwhelm their ability to cope with what they have experienced, according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. A traumatic experience may be a single event, a series of events, or a chronic condition. The experience of trauma is highly individualized.
The Impact of Trauma
A traumatic event is not an isolated event perceived equally by those who experience it. In other words, what is traumatic to one child may not necessarily have the same impact on another child. Similarly, what adults may perceive as traumatic may be very different from what a child perceives as traumatic. For example, a parent may believe a hurricane that destroyed their home is most traumatic; however, a young child in the same family may be most upset by losing his cat who ran away during the storm. For this reason, it is critical to attempt to understand the unique meaning of children’s experiences.
Factors That Influence the Impact of Trauma
History of previous trauma: An individual with a previous traumatic experience may be more likely to feel traumatized or even develop mental health problems when faced with another similar negative experience. Additionally, individuals who experience other types of traumas, such as being victims of violence or abuse, are also more likely to develop mental health problems when faced with negative experiences.
History of mental health problems: Mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse may become worse after a traumatic experience.
Aftereffects and proximity to the experience: Individuals with significant loss (e.g., a family member’s death, injury to self or others) as a result of the accident are more likely to have emotional or social problems after a traumatic experience. Individuals who had a near death experience as a result of the accident are also more likely to develop mental health problems.
Individuals who witnessed an event are more likely to develop problems than those who simply heard about the event.
Family mental health problems: Individuals who had family members with mental health problems are more likely to develop mental health problems resulting from the traumatic events than individuals with family members without mental health problems.
Responses to Trauma
Emotional response: Emotions such as extreme fear, guilt, helplessness, and shame negatively impact an individual's ability to recover from a potentially traumatic experience.
Dissociation: A person experiences the feeling of not being part of the traumatic event (e.g., feels cut off from his body and his surroundings; feels numb to physical and emotional feelings; feels as if he is floating outside his body; and/or has no memories of the event).
Temperament: Individuals who are "happy go lucky" or generally optimistic may be less likely to develop problems than individuals who are often negative or frequently perceive themselves as victims in life.
Support Systems: Family, caregivers, friends, culture, and environment all have a great influence on how an individual experiences a traumatic event. Adults can help children become less overwhelmed by even very adverse or dangerous experiences. The help of adults is also critical when children have become overwhelmed and experienced trauma.
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study is one of the largest investigations of the impact of childhood abuse and neglect on later life health and well-being.
The original ACEs Study was conducted at Kaiser Permanente from 1995 to 1997 with two waves of data collection. More than 17,000 people receiving physical exams completed confidential surveys regarding their childhood experiences and current health status and behaviors.
Researchers studied the relationship between these 10 ACEs:
- Child physical abuse
- Child sexual abuse
- Child emotional abuse
- Emotional neglect
- Physical neglect
- Mentally ill, depressed, or suicidal person in the home
- Drug addicted or alcoholic family member
- Witnessing domestic violence against the mother
- Loss of a parent to death or abandonment by parental divorce
- Incarceration of any family member for a crime
Researchers found that these experiences had a profound impact on health outcomes later in life. The ACEs study revealed that stress is a biological mechanism. Traumatic experiences do not simply happen to children, they happen inside their brains and bodies. Stress causes the body to release cortisol. Prolonged exposure to dangerously high levels of cortisol—known as toxic stress—impacts the brain’s capacity and ability to learn. Thus, students who are victims of trauma are at increased risk for academic failure and often under-perform or struggle in the classroom.
The CDC continues to collect data on ACEs and health outcomes. Some research has started to expand the definition of ACEs to include the impact of racism, oppression, and community violence.
Researchers are finding similar correlations between these adverse experiences and long-term health outcomes:
- Systemic Oppression
- Exposure to Community Violence
- Stereotype Threat
- Overly Punitive School Discipline
Children Who Experience Four or More ACEs:
10–12x greater risk for Intravenous Drug Use and Attempted Suicide
2–3x greater risk for developing Heart Disease and Cancer
32x more likely to have Learning and Behavioral Problems
8 out of 10 Leading Cause of Death in the U.S. correlate with exposure to four or more ACEs
Resource Type: Publication
National Centers: Health, Behavioral Health, and Safety
Last Updated: November 22, 2021