trauma in babies and toddlers
Written by Matt Nathaniel, Regional NightCare Director
Understanding Trauma in Babies and Toddlers
Trauma in young children is often misunderstood. Children who have experienced trauma may exhibit behaviors that will mislabel them as “bad kids” or “troublemakers.” In reality, they are acting in ways that they believe will keep them safe and prevent them from being hurt again. Sadly, this often means they do not get the help they need.
There are easy, low-cost interventions that will help babies and toddlers heal from trauma. Our NightCare program works to implement these. Several of the babies and toddlers who find their way to our centers have experienced some form of trauma. Many have experienced abuse. We see their survival instincts kick in and they may be aggressive with other children or adults as they try to protect themselves in the only ways they know-how.
They need to find a safe and secure environment that will allow them to heal. This blog will go into a deeper understanding of what causes trauma and how it manifests. In part two, I will discuss how babies and toddlers heal from trauma.
Note: Some of the writings below can be triggering. You should proceed only if you feel you can handle the possible triggers present in a general overview of trauma in babies and toddlers.
How Does Trauma Occur?
Trauma impacts the brain and triggers the flight or fight response. It communicates to the baby or toddler, “you are not safe and you need to protect yourself.” Trauma can be event-based- meaning the baby or toddler experienced a stressful or frightening event (like abuse). Or it could be environmental and a consistent factor in his life (like not having enough food).
As a result of the impact trauma has on the brain, babies and toddlers will struggle even when they are in a safe environment. For instance, they may go into fight or flight mode every time they see someone that resembles their abuser. This is what the brain does to keep them safe. It may also lead to survival behaviors like hitting a safe caregiver or overeating to ensure they have enough to eat. If left untreated, trauma will manifest in other ways well into adulthood.
Effects of Trauma
Early childhood trauma changes the biology of the brain. Many studies have found that brain development can be significantly affected by early childhood trauma. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, “From infancy through adolescence, the body’s biology develops. Normal biological function is partly determined by the environment. When a child grows up afraid or under constant or extreme stress, the immune system and body’s stress response systems may not develop normally.” This impact on development results in many challenges later in life, from psychological and emotional dysregulation to physical ailments.
When babies with trauma don’t get adequate support, they often have psychological and/or learning issues. One example of this is dissociation, often seen in those with a history of complex or ongoing trauma. Dissociation is a mental separation from the traumatic experience, and it happens during trauma as the brain’s way of protecting itself. Dissociation can be described as a mental retreat from the front lines, in a way. Those who have had dissociative episodes describe varied experiences and recall instances that range from feeling mentally separate from one’s own physical body to viewing the traumatic event from above as if floating near the ceiling, despite being amid the trauma themselves. Dissociation can be a helpful survival mechanism at the time but significantly affects one’s ability to be fully present later in life. This dissociation can result in difficulties with learning and social interactions. In addition, babies who have experienced early childhood trauma may have trouble concentrating later in life due to reminders of the traumatic experience being present in their environment. In some cases, academic interventions may be necessary.
Babies who have experienced trauma might have difficulty identifying, expressing, and managing emotions. Babies who have experienced trauma may have trouble expressing and managing their emotions and reactions, especially when they have limited or no language to express their feelings. They often have inappropriate stress responses and experience intense depression, anxiety, or anger. When a baby learns through trauma that their world and caregivers are a threat and cannot be trusted, they will often be very guarded or vigilant when interacting with peers and caregivers. They may also ignore or numb themselves to threatening situations as a defense mechanism, leaving them incredibly vulnerable to being victimized again.
Some questions to ponder on:
As you reflect on this article, please consider the following:
Can you in any way connect with trauma as an experience? If so, can you trace the roots back to your childhood?
If you feel your childhood trauma has shaped your adulthood, were you able to get adequate support?
Irrespective of whether you had/have a traumatic upbringing or not, do you feel responsibility to help someone deal with their trauma?
What tools might you use to support others (especially babies) if you had the opportunity?