Trauma and a Child Development Perspective

Trauma and a Child Development Perspective

child throwing a tantrum

It is important to understand the developmental nature of trauma in order to understand the child’s experience and consider a plan for intervention. Key areas to explore and understand are:

  • The characteristics of the stress, fear, threat, or trauma to the child,
  • The child’s genetic and developmental capacity to manage stress,
  • How well the child’s early attachment system is/was able to support the child, including the family’s culture and the caregiver’s own experience of being cared for, and
  • The aspects of the child’s current functioning and development that have been affected

A child’s ability to adapt, use internal coping resources, and employ defense mechanisms in the face of trauma are determined by:

  • Development (brain development, self-regulation, psychosocial development, cognitive functioning and communication)
  • Attachment relationships (an attuned and responsive caregiver, social environment)
  • Resilience (ability to bounce back from life’s adversity based on protective factors such as good health, easy going temperament, close relationships, consistent parenting, etc.)

(Cook et al, 2003; Blumenfeld et al, 2010)

Illustration of a developmental perspective:

Sh’tawn James is at the Head Start center early today with her 18 month old daughter, Angel in tow. Her 4 year old son, Jamille and his classmates have a field trip today. Sh’tawn has volunteered to help with the outing to the local fire station as long as her daughter can come along too.

As they walk along the three blocks to the fire station, Sh’tawn pushes her daughter in her stroller, making sure the four children she is supervising are holding hands and walking calmly down the street. Suddenly she trips on some uneven sidewalk and falls to the ground, She cries out in pain, and grabs her ankle. Her knee and her head are bleeding where she hit the sidewalk, but she does not appear to be seriously hurt.

Jamille shouts —”Mommy — are you OK? Help my mommy!” running toward Sh’tawn and turning to find his teacher. Angel immediately begins to cry and screams “Momma, momma”, straining to get out of her stroller, with arms outstretched toward her mother and refusing to be comforted by the teacher’s aide. The teacher assures Jamille that his mother will be OK, but Angel is inconsolable.

The toddler and her brother have different perceptions of this event. It is frightening for both children, but the toddler’s level of stress and perception of danger is more closely linked to her mother’s injury and her unavailability to Angel. The four year old is also be upset, but has a more moderate appraisal of danger to his mother or himself. Jamille realizes that falling and getting hurt by accident sometimes happens and that “boo boo’s” usually get better fast. He also turns to other trusted adults for help for his mother and reassurance for himself.

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This product was developed [in part] under grant number 1H79SM082070-01 from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The views, policies and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of SAMHSA or HHS.