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What Causes Childhood Trauma?

What Is Trauma?

Trauma is difficult to define because professionals and authorities view it differently. I have collected a few of the definitions that I found helpful in understanding trauma, and hopefully, they will help you, too.

In the book Trauma-Proofing Your Kids: A Parents’ Guide for Instilling Confidence, Joy and Resilience, coauthors Dr. Peter A. Levine and Maggie Kline describe trauma as an intense experience that suddenly overwhelms a child. Trauma, then, is an event that shocks children and overwhelms them. It destabilizes them and their sense of security. A traumatized child feels powerlessness in the traumatic situation. Left untreated, the “feeling of overwhelm,” as Maggie Kline describes it, goes into and affects the rest of the child’s life and experiences.

Margaret Vasquez, a clinical traumatologist who was effectively treated for childhood trauma as a young adult, offers what I consider the most approachable definition for parents. She says trauma is “the scary, painful, and yucky stuff that happens.” As a parent, her simple definition makes it easier for me to consider trauma from a child’s point of view.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM), used by mental health clinicians to diagnose mental health conditions, doesn’t include a specific term for or description of childhood trauma. Therefore, Sue Badeau, a member of The National Child Traumatic Stress Network advisory board, says, “PTSD is the only trauma-related diagnosis that exists.” While PTSD doesn’t match what’s known about childhood trauma perfectly, it’s the best term available and the one for professionals to use to open the door to treatment.
What Causes Trauma?

But what do kids perceive as scary, painful, and yucky? A quick overview might include:  

Physical, sexual, and verbal abuse

Natural disasters like tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes

Unexpected happenings such as car accidents and fires

Violent events including war, terrorist attacks, and hostage situations

Observing violent events such as domestic abuse or murder

Longer-lasting situations (think toxic stress response) of deprivation such as neglect, hunger, homelessness, and poverty

These events spring to mind because they are perceived as traumatic by adults as well as by children. However, to thoroughly understand what kids consider scary, yucky, and painful, we must consider how little power or control children have over their own lives as compared to adults. What events are traumatic for children because they lack power or control?



The death of a loved one


Dog bites

Add to these situations a handful of scenarios that result in a child’s ultimate and long-term good but still feel scary, painful, and yucky. To a child dependent upon adults for security and protection, many things can be traumatic:

A move to a new home or city

Moving from one foster home to another


Erratic responses from caregivers who are not consistently nurturing

Invasive medical procedures

Click to tweet: Adults too often minimize the traumatizing effect of everyday events upon children.
The list may be longer than you expected. Unfortunately, this accounting is not all-inclusive. For now, the main point to remember is this: adults too often minimize the traumatizing effect of everyday events upon children, the most vulnerable and powerless members of our society. Many events that adults take in stride can be traumatizing to children.
Reflection Question:

When I look at my children’s lives through their eyes, could certain events have been perceived as traumatic by them though not by the adults around them?

This article is an excerpt from Jolene Philo’s Does My Child Have PTSD?
: Shutterstock

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Is it possible that the struggles you have with your child may be because he or she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? Once ignored, even by the medical professionals treating…

Does My Child Have PTSD?

Jolene Philo

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Jolene is the author of the Different Dream Parenting series for parents of kids with special needs, and she speaks at conferences around the country. Her blog,www.DifferentDream.com, provides resources and encouragement for parents of kids with… Read More


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