The impact of trauma on children is significant. The first three years of a child’s life create their blueprint for life. Children are vulnerable and unable to meet their own needs during their early years. When a child’s needs are met by a caring, consistent, and calm adult, the child attaches and thrives. In contrast, children who do not get their needs met consistently experience uncertainty, anxiety, and fear. Abuse includes physical, emotional, or sexual harm, while neglect is when the child’s needs aren’t met physically, emotionally, medically, or educationally. All abuse and neglect create a lifelong impact on their brains, bonds, and behaviors. The effects of abuse create a lifetime impact. This article will provide some descriptions of the impact children experience when their childhood included abuse or neglect.
Let’s go back and re-look at attachment theory. Attachment theory teaches us that babies express their needs by crying. When a calm, regulated caregiver responds to the baby’s cry, the baby begins to calm and trust. This trust continues to build and forms attachment. In contrast, when a baby’s needs are not met consistently, timely, or at all, the baby learns that the world is dangerous and that adults are not to be trusted. This script that is created in the baby’s brain will affect their emotions, behaviors, and development.
Healthy baby development involves cooing and gestures and receives nurturing responses from their parents. This rhythm creates a call and response interaction that fosters the child’s development. Children then believe that the world is a safe place, and they feel adored, seen, and heard. They develop from a place where they create a script that tells them that they are good, wanted, worthwhile, and lovable. Additionally, they believe their parents will respond to their needs and are trustworthy and dependable. They are more likely to take risks, think consequentially, and be engaging; thus, their developmental pathway will appear normal.
Effects of Abuse
The effects of abuse vary. They include physical changes, emotional challenges, intellectual delays, and sensory stressors. The behaviors may appear odd, out of the blue, or even extreme, when in reality, they are normal responses to abnormal early childhood experiences.
One Young Girl
One young girl, I knew began defecating in shoeboxes and piling the boxes in her closet. She was severely abused by her birth parents, and her adoptive parents were trying to understand her seemingly unusual behavior. When they asked me about it, I reframed it for them. She was trying to see if her parents were safe and could be trusted. She carried big pain and was giving them the smelly, ugly parts of her to see if they could handle it. And she was afraid that if they could see all of her pain and how ugly and big it was, they would reject her.
In response, they went to her and told her they weren’t afraid of her pain and that they loved her no matter what. Soon after, she stopped this behavior as they built trust and safety with her. Our job, when we parent a child with a trauma history, is to try to understand their needs. When we understand and meet their needs, their behaviors diminish.
Miss Developmental Milestones
In contrast, when children experience abuse, they miss developmental milestones resulting in impaired self-regulation, diminished self-control, and compromised problem-solving skills. The script they create internally states that they are bad, unwanted, worthless, helpless, and unlovable. Their experience of adults is that they are unresponsive, insensitive, hurtful, and untrustworthy. Because of these thoughts, they stay terrified and are unsure if life is worth living because the world appears very unsafe.
These children’s trauma histories impact their physical development, and they may be at risk for obesity, illness, disease, and even stunted growth. Not only is their physical development impaired, but their emotional development is also hindered, and they may experience a persistent state of fear or anxiety. Children with a persistent fear response may lose their ability to differentiate between danger and safety, and they may identify a threat in a nonthreatening situation (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2010b).
Behaviors May Not Make Sense
When you ask a child with an abuse history to complete a certain task, or you ask them a question, you may get an abrupt response or even a meltdown. You will feel as though this response came out of nowhere. Yet, we need to respond with understanding and grace. They are not trying to push our buttons or manipulate us; they are merely trying to survive the threats, fears, and anxieties they are experiencing. Remember, they believe the world is unsafe, so sometimes their behaviors may not make sense to us.
Not only are they wired for fear and anxiety, but they may also be hypo aroused, resulting in aggressive behaviors. These children may be highly sensitive to nonverbal cues, such as eye contact or a touch on the arm, and they may be more likely to misinterpret others’ body language or words.
A Child Who Can’t Calm Down
Picture the child who can’t ever seem to calm or regulate. Because of their early abuse history, their exposure to violence created a propensity to act out aggressively. Aggressive behaviors are scary to most people, and sometimes we want to isolate the child or get away from them when in reality, what they need is to be calmed and regulated. They need to know that we will be there for them and not abandon them because they acted out. The very thing they crave, which is connection and belonging, can be compromised if we push them away when they act out. They don’t benefit from time-outs because of their fear of abandonment. Building on this understanding is the hard work of parenting a child with an abuse history.
Brain Development Altered
Another outcome of abuse is an increase in toxic stress that alters brain development in ways that impede their social interactions with others. As a result, these children or youth experience toxic stress, which may make it more challenging to navigate social situations and adapt to changing social contexts. They don’t feel safe. They may misinterpret others’ body language, words, or situations. Also, they might react in ways that don’t match the situation because they saw it as a threat.
For example, some youth act out with tantrums or by shutting down when given a task to complete, believing that if they fail, they will be abandoned. One young man acted out each time he was asked to take the trash out. Eventually, his parent began to ask him if she could go with him to empty the trash. The situation was resolved because she went with him, thus alleviating his fear (we won’t always understand; yet, we can pray for wisdom and find ways to create trust and safety). It is difficult to respond when we see this type of behavior because we want to correct them when what they need is connection. Connect before you correct.
Other responses from children with abuse histories include increased impulsivity. The child may not be able to problem-solve; thus, they act impulsively and in the moment because they can’t think in the future. They tend to live in the present tense at all times. They may also struggle with school because of academic expectations and social interactions. Schools may include sensory overloads with all of the sounds, smells, and rules. School or other situations can be overwhelming and create stressed-out brains and emotions. It is important to recognize the challenges that school creates for our children and youth.
Other responses to abuse histories can include eating disorders, suicidal or homicidal thoughts, aggressive behaviors, sexually acting out, discomfort with touch or affection, and high-risk behaviors. For a child with a sexual abuse history, they may respond with over-sexualized behaviors. Try not to panic if you see these behaviors because the behaviors are telling us that the child is in pain. They are looking to discharge or release their pain. They may do this in ways that are difficult to understand or manage. The greatest response we can provide is to avoid panicking and to show up with grace, empathy, and patience. As parents of children with trauma histories, you may need to find a support group where you can discuss your questions, confusion, and pain.
Good News: Healing Can Happen
Trauma occurred in the context of relationship and will be healed in the context of relationship. This is the good news, knowing we can create hope. Not only do our children need our love, healing, grace, and understanding, they deserve it. Work through your own hesitation, anxiety, and fear. Be willing to show up and be the parent your child needs and wants (even though their behavior may seem to communicate differently in the moment). Perfect love has no fear (I John 4:18). Fear not; God will equip you to do the healing work your child needs.