Childhood Trauma & Mental Health: Definition, Signs, & Resources

Physical health ailments in children can be easy to identify and treat, especially in some instances. A scraped knee can indicate whether a toddler has been hurt, or parents can check whether a child has a cold or fever simply by using a thermometer.However, identifying and addressing trauma in a child can be much more difficult. Parents may not recognize signs of a child’s depression or anxiety. They may not be aware of certain mental and emotional health conditions, let alone if their children are experiencing them or other trauma. Additionally, a child’s trauma can stay with them as they grow older and potentially impair their ongoing mental health. Treating childhood trauma and emotional health is a complex challenge. It requires extensive education about children’s mental health, as well as a firm understanding of the necessary tools and treatments that can help these young individuals. Dedicated professionals, such as those who graduate from a master’s in social work program, understand the scope and severity of childhood trauma and what steps need to be taken to help patients.

Childhood Trauma Definition

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), trauma or a traumatic event is something that is frightening, dangerous or violent and poses a threat to a person’s safety and security. Based on this definition, childhood trauma can refer to a child being physically attacked — whether intentionally or accidentally — by another child, a parent, another adult or even a pet or animal. It can also be caused by a non-violent event, such as a parent or an adult shouting at a child, a child almost being hit by a car, or even the sudden loss of a friend or relative.However, childhood trauma is not only caused by events that a child directly experiences. According to the NCTSN, “witnessing a traumatic event that threatens the life or physical security of a loved one can also be traumatic. This is particularly important for young children as their sense of safety depends on the perceived safety of their attachment figures.” A child witnessing a parent being verbally or physically abused within the family, or watching a sibling or friend being assaulted or attacked by another adult, can also result in childhood trauma.Ultimately, indirectly experiencing a traumatic event differs from other childhood mental and emotional health conditions because it can have a negative health impact throughout a person’s life. For example, an adult who experienced a traumatic event as a child, such as a parent or adult abusing them, can experience negative mental health effects such as anxiety or depression even though the event took place many years ago. The adult may fixate on the childhood abuse or traumatic event and in turn, experience a decline in mental health. They may also experience prolonged anxiety or depression without realizing or understanding why.Because there are many types of events that could potentially traumatize a child, pinpointing the concept of childhood trauma can be difficult. For example, one sibling who experiences verbal abuse by a parent may not suffer any negative health outcomes, while another sibling may experience that same event as traumatic.

Symptoms and Signs of Childhood Trauma

Childhood trauma can affect children and adults in a variety of ways. However, there are common signs and symptoms to look for.

According to the Center for Early Childhood and Mental Health Consultation at Georgetown University’s Center for Child and Human Development (ECMHC), symptoms of trauma in infants include eating and sleep disturbances, irritability, becoming easily startled and demonstrating aggressive behaviors. For children 3-6 years old, symptoms can include anxiety and fearfulness, inattention, irritability and sadness and depression.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, notes signs of childhood trauma among elementary school children. These can include feelings of guilt and shame, as well as difficulties with sleeping and concentrating. For middle and high school students, SAMSHA states that symptoms can include depression, eating disorders, self-harming behaviors and abuse of drugs and alcohol.

But the signs and symptoms of childhood trauma may not end with adolescence. They may linger on and impact adulthood as well. For example, a traumatic event may impair a student’s ability to concentrate and perform well in academic environments. This in turn could lead to suspensions, expulsions and reduced educational and professional opportunities going forward. Childhood trauma can also result in physical health ailments such as heart disease and diabetes. Additionally, it can be a primary cause of substance abuse or addictive disorders, SAMSHA states.Equally important to remember is that just as a child may experience a traumatic event in their own unique way, the symptoms of childhood trauma can vary from person to person. Individuals who experience the same traumatic childhood event may develop distinctly different physical, mental and emotional symptoms.

Resources to Address Childhood Trauma

There are various resources and services to assist individuals who have experienced and have been negatively impacted by childhood trauma.

Mental Health Practitioners

Mental health practitioners can help children and adults who may have experienced traumatic events and are exhibiting symptoms and negative behaviors. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), this can include helping a child understand their trauma and their reactions, as well as helping them to, “identify and use their existing coping skills and know when to ask for additional help.” Additionally, mental health practitioners can follow up with patients after observing their initial trauma symptoms, help parents and adults understand the child’s trauma and their reactions to it, and assess present and future risk factors.

Local and National Services

When childhood trauma is a result of an abusive, neglectful and illegal action, there are options available to children, parents and other individuals. They have the ability to contact authorities and share information regarding alleged abuse to prevent further harm from being inflicted on the child. An excellent resource is The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at: 1-800-422-4453. Here, callers can communicate with dedicated counselors around the clock. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s Cyber Tipline answers and addresses concerns and claims regarding suspected child sexual abuse and exploitation. Individual states and cities also frequently offer services for reporting and stopping child abuse.

Family, Friends and Loved Ones

Families, parents and trusted adults can also help children address and overcome their trauma. If a child experiences a traumatic event within their home or neighborhood, parents can help the child cope with any resulting anxiety, stress or other ailments, according to the Child Mind Institute. This may include removing the traumatic item or stressor entirely, or helping show the child that the item or event is not dangerous.

For example, if a child has become afraid of lightning and thunder and is experiencing trauma, the family can help the child understand that they are safe, they can remove the child from the event, or provide items such as a security blanket or stuffed animal. Even if the event does not seem traumatic or dangerous to others, parents should still show empathy and listen to the child’s concerns.

Nonprofit Organizations

There are many nonprofit organizations that are committed to raising awareness of childhood abuse and trauma. Some focus on making the public more cognizant of the harms of childhood trauma, while others provide services and resources to those who have been afflicted by trauma. The Child Welfare Information Gateway has an extensive list of organizations that are dedicated to addressing childhood trauma. Additional childhood trauma resources may exist at the local, city and state levels.

Online Resources

There are several reputable and trustworthy online resources that can help children, adults and families address this type of trauma.


Help People Move Beyond Childhood Trauma

Childhood trauma can negatively impact the mental, emotional and physical health of both children and adults. Furthermore, it does not manifest itself as a common physical health condition might. As a result, it can be difficult to accurately assess if trauma has been experienced, let alone the proper way to treat it.

Despite the negative health impacts it brings, childhood trauma can be addressed and treated with the help of caring, knowledgeable and dedicated medical and mental health professionals. Those who wish to play a role in helping identify and treat the effects of childhood trauma — for children, adults and society at large — would do well to explore The University of Nevada, Reno’s Master of Social Work program.


Suggested Readings

How Social Workers Improve the Quality of Life in Nursing Homes

The Differences Between a Social Worker and a Psychologist

University of Nevada, Reno Online Master of Social Work



American Psychological Organization, Children and Trauma

Child Mind Institute, Child Guides

Child Mind Institute, Helping Children Cope After a Traumatic Event

Child Welfare Information Gateway, Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Organizations

Child Welfare Information Gateway, Related Resources

ECMHC, Trauma Signs and Symptoms

National Child Traumatic Stress Network, Children and Domestic Violence for Parents Fact Sheet Series

National Child Traumatic Stress Network, What Is a Traumatic Event?

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Recognizing and Treating Traumatic Stress

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Resources for Child Trauma-Informed Care