Dr Lakshmy Menon, a neonatologist and paediatrician, recounts meeting a 10-year-old girl. Her parents brought her after being concerned over her frequent complains of abdominal pain and subsequent absence from school. After a series of questions around the pain as well as puberty, the doctor asked to speak to the youngster one-on-one, only to find out that she had been relocated from her previous place of study to a new city and was finding difficult to cope. Her father mostly remained absent, and mother was always overworked. She did not want to stay with her parents, and was emotionally hurt. Childhood trauma, says the expert, shows up in different ways. But it’s a sensitive matter that must be handled with care.
Negative life experiences can leave indelible imprints on young minds. They end up shaping the way we behave, respond and react to situations as children and even as adults. “Childhood is a vulnerable stage where there are a lot of neural connections and networks form in the brain because of the various experiences they go through,” says Dr Lakshmy Menon, consultant neonatologist and pediatrician, Cloudnine Group of Hospitals, Bellandur, Bengaluru.
Trauma can be of different kinds depending on how it is experienced. The expert explains it in detail.
According to the expert, this is especially seen in dysfunctional families with fraught relations between parents. Sometimes it is a parent who substance abuses and considers all weaker members of the family ‘fair game’. Or a parent who particularly is going through psychological or mental health issues abuses the child at home. Physical trauma can range from ‘shaken baby syndrome (brain trauma), fractures of the hands/legs, contusion of the head or soft tissue injury of any part of the body. These kids may come with obvious injuries or covert ones which are not easily explained.
Sexual trauma happens when the child is engaged in sexual behaviour with an adult or a person who is older than them or who is in a position of authority. The reason for this only for enjoyment of the adult or used for nefarious purposes. These kids exhibit early ‘sexualization’ characteristics or become more withdrawn, have trouble sleeping, bed-wetting, eating disorders and general avoidance behaviour. Talking about sexual abuse may help them reduce its mental health effects.
Children can suffer psychological trauma when actions are designed to create insecurities or fear of abandonment, or to create fear of harm of their loved ones, raise disparaging self doubts about them, scolding in front of others or insulting or berating them. Neglect is also a form of threat where basic necessities of a child are not looked after. Leaving the children alone for long periods of time can also lead to this type of childhood trauma.
When the child is exposed to stress but is surrounded by loving and caring relationships, the ability to deal with the negative emotions is easier. Children, by default, trust their caregivers. But when that trust is broken due to abuse, they realise that the world is ‘unsafe or terrible’. These kids can develop attachment issues and have trouble regulating their emotions. They may react very often out of proportion to situations, and as adults, tend to be more susceptible to stress.
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It can also lead to various mental health disorders in children. Here are some symptoms of childhood trauma and how it can show up:
* When encountering stress, one experiences rapid breathing, fast heart rate, feeling of ‘being frozen’ and unable to cope.
* Children with histories of trauma often have chronic headaches, fatigue, stomachaches, eating disorders.
* They often grow up to have smoking or substance abuse or issues like diabetes due to eating disorders.
* These children may have trouble regulating their reactions to situations.
* Children with trauma are often very watchful and perceive situations as ‘dangerous’.
* Some children react in the opposite way and put themselves in harms way. These kids often experience symptoms of depression which may pursue them into adulthood.
* Traumatised children have problems of cognition and processing and reasoning of problems. They grow up under constant threat of survival so their mental faculties are fully engaged in that mode. They may struggle with language and abstract reasoning and often need help in academics.
A large group of studies have concluded that childhood trauma of any kind increase the risk of mental and physical illnesses later on as an adult. It can, more importantly, lead to severe psychiatric disorders including depression, anxiety, psychosis and post traumatic stress disorder. Chronic physical health problems such as rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, lung disease are also higher in people with childhood trauma.
Suffering childhood trauma is said to have increased the risk of mental health issues as an adult by thrice. Recognising early signs of trauma in children and treating them early will go a long way in assuring them as healthy productive adults.