Child abuse and trauma

— Skylight Trust

Childhood abuse is traumatic. A traumatised child is likely to be frightened, anxious, distressed, distrustful, and angry. They need a lot of good support. ​

Childhood abuse is an umbrella term that covers:

Physical abuse - Violence, or the threat of it, to control, discipline or punish a child.

Sexual abuse - Sexual activity with an adult or older child who have trust and power over a child. Includes manipulation or coercion into sexual activity, prostitution or pornography, and sexual assault and rape.

Psychological/Emotional abuse - Lack of love, security and emotional support, verbal cruelty, being ignored, emotional manipulation and threats.

Neglect - Failure to provide love, healthcare, protection, the necessities of life, education, and supervision.

Whenever a child experiences any kind of abuse, it is traumatic. That means, it is frightening. Their mental and emotional health, physical health, development, relationships, and behaviour are all affected. The effects can go with a child into adolescence and adulthood.

What is childhood trauma? It is a serious psychological injury, which affects a child’s body, mind, and spirit. The USA’s National Institute of Mental Health defines childhood trauma as: “The experience of an event by a child that is emotionally painful or distressful, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects.”

Research tells us, that trauma affects a child’s brain and its development. Trauma disrupts the brain’s stress-hormone system, affects a child’s nervous system, and stops the brain processing traumatic memories properly. Difficult and frightening memories can get stuck inside and continue to have an effect – long after abuse has happened.

The good news is, that with the right care, love and support, children can recover well from trauma, even if it has been extreme and sustained.

Post-traumatic Stress When a child faces a traumatic event, or is in an ongoing traumatic environment, they are constantly scared by what they see, hear, or go through – or see others go through. Trauma is rooted in fear and automatically triggers the post-traumatic stress process. This helps people take in and respond to what’s happened, bit by bit. It’s a normal reaction to abnormal situations.

Individual children react in different ways to trauma, but children typically respond to trauma in four main ways:

Reliving the event:

  • intrusive and distressing thoughts and memories
  • preoccupied by anything and everything associated with the abuse
  • flashbacks – reacting as if it was happening again, with physical, mental, and emotional reactions
  • panic attacks, if they are frightened that it’s going to happen again
  • bad dreams and nightmares disrupting sleep.

Avoiding anything or anyone that reminds them of what happened:

  • avoiding thoughts, feelings about the event
  • avoiding conversations about it
  • remaining numb and unresponsive to all related emotions
  • wanting to sleep a lot
  • social withdrawal to avoid people and a perceived or real threat
  • use of alcohol or drugs, or other risk taking, to avoid bad memories
  • dissociative reactions to switch off from/avoid surroundings, people, or activities, to protect themselves from traumatic memories.

Increased anxiety and emotional arousal:

  • staying at the ready, on alert – hyper-vigilant
  • jumpy and easily startled
  • very strong feelings, such as anger, guilt, self-blame, and shame
  • mental and emotional exhaustion
  • unable or unwilling to concentrate on other things
  • sleeping issues – afraid to sleep
  • clingy – wanting to be constantly with those they trust.

A new uncertainty about the world:

  • feeling everything’s changed
  • feels less safe and secure
  • suspicious of others – difficulty trusting and relating with others
  • less hope for their future
  • depression
  • in extreme instances, suicidal thoughts.

PTSD If an abused child gets stuck after a traumatic event, and the natural process is stalled, they may be at risk of developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This needs a formal diagnosis and intervention from a professional – e.g. a GP, Psychiatrist, or Psychologist.

Not every child who has been abused becomes traumatised. Children are all different, and some do not carry as many scars as others. See every child as an individual.

What can help recovery? There is good help available and often it will take a team to support a child well, so that they can get through the impact of traumatic abuse. Recovery from trauma takes time and can be an up and down journey.

Ask for skilled and practical support and help from:

  • a GP
  • a children’s nurse
  • a children’s Counsellor or Psychologist
  • your local child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS)
  • the child care or school specialist support staff
  • specialists who could help, such as a speech therapist, a child development adviser, a play therapist, or art therapist.

Believing a child when they disclose information about abuse, and assisting them to tell the appropriate people, can be a helpful part of their trauma recovery. This process needs to be handled sensitively, by people trained to assist traumatised children through the process, step by step (and their parents/caregivers).

Resources Available at Skylight

Skylight is here to help you through difficult times. We can assist you in a variety of ways with information appropriate for your situation. You are welcome to visit us and receive free information and a support pack from our resource centre and borrow books from the specialist library. We also facilitate Professional Development training and offer Counselling support services for children, young people, family/whānau and individuals who are experiencing tough times.

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