Trauma – Maltreatment During Early Childhood

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For most babies the early years of childhood are filled with joy, excitement, learning and growth. But it is also true that the rates of child maltreatment are highest for the youngest of children, thereby children are most at risk in the earliest weeks and months of life. 

How much are young children affected by events that take place around them?

Babies are active players in the world. Even though they may not understand the meaning of what they see or hear, children absorb the images that surround them and are deeply impacted by the emotions of the people they rely on for love and security.

Parents and caregivers play a very important role in helping infants and toddlers cope and recover from traumatic and stressful experiences. Providing young children with sensitive and responsive care takes a lot of emotional and physical energy. But the everyday moments shared between a child and a loved adult can be mutually healing. During difficult and uncertain times, simply finding comfort in each other’s presence is the first step to helping young children cope and heal.

What is Child Abuse and Neglect

Early experiences powerfully shape the developing brain and can have an immediate and lifelong impact on a baby’s health and well-being. All areas of development are closely intertwined in the early years, so physical harm can damage emotional, social, cognitive and language development. Younger children make up a larger proportion of abuse and neglect victims than do older children, and are most likely to experience serious harm and longer foster care placement. Young children can recover from early maltreatment due to the rapidity of early development and the capacity of the growing brain to respond to new experiences. With early support and intervention maltreated infants and toddlers healthy development can be restored.

Helping Young Children Cope after Exposure to a Traumatic Event

Tragedies are especially distressing to families with young children.  The primary role of parents is to protect children. One important way to do this is to prevent their exposure to information they cannot handle. Young children do not need to be reminded of traumatic events that they have no way of understanding.

So it is best to:

– Ask friends and family not to discuss the scary event around your child.

– Maintain your child’s regular routine to make sure he/she feels that the world around him/her is still the same.

Behaviors you might see in young children who have been exposed to a traumatic event

– Increased clinginess, crying and whining
– Greater fear of separation from parents
– Increase in aggressive behavior
– More withdrawn and harder to engage
– Play that acts out scary events
– Changes in sleeping and eating patterns
– More easily frustrated and harder to comfort
– A return to earlier behaviors, like frequent night-wakening and thumb-sucking

What you can do:

– Respond to your child’s need for increased attention, comfort and reassurance.  This will make him/her feel safer sooner.
– Pay close attention to your child’s feelings and validate them. Ignoring feelings does not make them go away.
– Help your child identify his/her feelings by naming them (scary, sad, angry, etc.).
– Offer your child safe ways to express feelings, such as drawing, pretend play, or telling stories.
– Don’t discourage your child’s play because you find it disturbing.  Young children work through frightening events by reenacting them through play. If your child seems to be distressed by his play, comfort him and redirect him to another activity. 
– Be patient and calm when your child is clingy, whiny, or aggressive. He needs you to help him regain control and feel safe.
– Answer children’s questions according to their level of understanding: “Yes, a bad thing happened but we are keeping you safe.” 
– Mostly importantly always be there for your child. You may need to get out of work etc during that time. But remember that neglect after trauma will only makes things worse.