What’s It Like to Be a Child With Complex Trauma?

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“Children with complex trauma often have overactive alarm systems, where their alarm system ‘goes haywire,’” says the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN).

We all have an internal alarm system that tells us when we need to “fight, flight, or freeze.” When kids have complex trauma—when they’ve been exposed to multiple traumatic events—the wide-ranging, long-term effects of what they’ve been through put their systems into hyperalert. This often causes  them to have wild and maladaptive, though understandable, behaviors and reactions. They may jump at noises, have trouble sleeping, feel constantly unsafe, be unable to concentrate, and struggle with trauma reminders—alarms that go off when they’re reminded of traumatic incidents.

Traumas and reminders, or triggers, deeply influence how a child sees the world, and how a person feels throughout his life. According to the landmarks ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study, the more ACEs a child has, the more health problems he’s likely to have—from social, emotional, and cognitive impairments to at-risk behaviors to depression and heart disease.

So what can you do to help a child with complex trauma cope, heal, learn, and grow? A factsheet for caregivers from the NCTSN outlines:
  • Some common trauma reminders, such as packing suitcases, which might remind a child of the day she was taken from her home and put in foster care.
  • How a child of trauma might overreact or feel betrayed by a minor misunderstanding.
  • How important it is for you as a caregiver to be aware of your own feelings and reactions—because your attitudes and behaviors affect those of a child with trauma and vice versa.

Learn more in Complex Trauma: Facts for Caregivers [PDF].

Find out What Teens With Trauma Want You to Know.

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“I believe that more often than many people think is possible, we can prevent problems from getting out of control. We can make each other safer.”