Complex Trauma in Children

Nearly 35 million American children have experienced one or more types of complex trauma in their lifetime. The occurrence of any kind of trauma during childhood poses long-term health risks and behavioral consequences to the child, even after the traumatic event has come to an end.

A child may be exposed to different types of traumatic episodes, which include but aren’t limited to sexual abuse, physical abuse, domestic violence, and neglect. Such early exposure to triggering events may result in a range of physical and mental disturbances, as well as a difficulty to sustain future relationships.

Types of Trauma

A traumatic experience is defined as a disturbing event that makes a child feel deeply threatened for life if the problem isn’t expertly addressed. The child might either be directly involved in the traumatic experience (mentally or physically) or witness it.

The event may or may not be related to close relatives or family members. Listed below are a few of the types of trauma children may encounter.

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence, which is also called Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), entails abusive tactics used by an individual in order to inflict harm on a partner/spouse. The tactics mentioned include sexual abuse, verbal abuse, or emotional distress.

A child who witnesses domestic abuse might feel judged, disempowered, or threatened if required to talk about the situation outside of her home.

Sexual Abuse

A child may have no idea she is being or has been sexually abused in the past if she has been lured by a predator. Whether the alleged abuser is a close relative or a stranger, finding out about sexual abuse later in life could lead the child to believe she is guilty of what she has been through.

Sexual abuse may involve direct physical contact or no contact at all. An example of non-contact child abuse is forcing a child to watch pornographic material or asking for sexual pictures.

Reportedly, 1 in 3 children who suffer from sexual abuse won’t tell their parents or caregivers about the incident due to shame, fear, or uncertainty.

Physical Abuse

Although not all visible signs of physical harm (cuts, bruises, burns) might be an indication of abuse, it is advisable that parents have a conversation with their child about the existence and seriousness of physical abuse. The child might not realize it is an issue and might feel guilty to open up about it until an adult does.

Especially if the child has been under the supervision of a new caregiver or if there’s evidence she comes from an abusive home, talking openly about child abuse could reveal a potentially harmful relationship in or outside of the child’s home.


Also a form of child abuse, neglect is described as irresponsible conduct that exposes children to dangerous situations. Constant lack of supervision by a parent/caregiver and purposefully making children feel unprotected and worthless are among cases of neglect.

Such traumatic occurrences lead to enduring problems, such as poor self-esteem and an emotional blockage when it comes to future relationships. For instance, a child who was abused by her father in the past might experience extreme anxiety in a romantic relationship, afraid that the abuse might reoccur with a different person.

This lack of trust—as well as the range of problems resulting from complex trauma—is caused by an activation of the victim’s traumatic response.

The Traumatic Response

Excessive stress is detrimental to the developing brain. Children who grow up in a traumatic environment may have an impaired perception of danger and a warped sense of self. That happens due to the disadvantageous effects of a stressful event in the brain, which regulates a person’s mood and behavioral responses to life events as they happen.

The traumatic response can be instantaneous—activating the fight-or-flight response in a given moment of high anxiety—or long-lasting. The latter means that an early-childhood trauma may distort a person’s response to life situations even after the danger is completely gone.

Among the health consequences and negative effects caused by complex trauma in children are:

Flawed Behavioral ControlImpaired CognitionTroubled Self-Concept

It takes one inciting incident for a child to be emotionally scarred for life. If psychiatric or psychological interventions aren’t available to assist in the healing of complex trauma, a person can develop a lifelong perception of people, places, and events based on the respective traumatic event.

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