What is Trauma?
People use the word trauma to describe many different kinds of experiences. This includes one-time experiences – like car accidents, sexual assaults, or community tragedies like witnessing someone being shot. It can also refer to ongoing experiences, like having parents or other caregivers (foster parents, relatives) who fight a lot (domestic violence), being hit or hurt by the people who take care of you (physical abuse), being in a community that is always unsafe, or ongoing experiences like racism or poverty.
Traumatic experiences may include things that do happen (like being hit, being sexually abused, or being called names and being put down by caregivers); and may also include things that don’t happen or that there’s not enough of (like not being taken care of and not having enough to eat). They may include things that happen on purpose (like someone intentionally hurting you), and may also include things that are out of people’s control (like experiencing a tornado or other natural disaster). Traumatic events may affect just you and happen in secret, or they may be very public and affect large groups of people.
What does trauma do?
Traumatic experiences can affect kids in many different ways. Sometimes kids struggle with a lot of thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and relationships; other times, kids are able to manage many different hard experiences and still appear to be doing very well. There is no right or wrong way to respond to trauma: everyone does what works for them in the moment, and most reactions – even those that make you or those around you feel “crazy”— make sense.
Not everyone reacts to trauma in the same way. Some kids or teens feel depressed, anxious, angry, or have trouble with relationships or school. Here are some examples of how trauma can affect kids’ lives:
- Not trusting others: Sarah doesn’t trust anyone and she believes that she is the only person she can rely on. Sarah is nice enough to people, but won’t let them get to know the real her. Many people in her life have let her down and have hurt her and it feels safer for her to not let anyone close enough to hurt her again.
- Getting into trouble: Jeremy is constantly getting into trouble. At school, at home, everywhere. He hates it when people aren’t respectful, and will definitely step up and teach people that he can’t be messed with. Jeremy’s life has been filled with violence – he grew up in a house where there were a lot of fights and he had his share of beatings. Life taught him that the answer to problems was to fight back.
- Feeling sad or hollow inside: Aleya can’t really remember a time when she felt really happy. She’s been dealing with depression for a long time and feels empty inside and sometimes doesn’t see a point in life. Growing up, Aleya was regularly yelled at and put down. She figured that she doesn’t deserve good things and she doesn’t deserve to be happy.
- Spacing out: Kevin doesn’t always remember things and he sometimes feels pretty disconnected from his own body and life – like he is looking at his life through fog. He experienced a lot of scary and traumatic things, and his brain protected him by forgetting or not remembering what happened – even after the trauma stopped.
- Not feeling like you know yourself, or who you are: Jamie often feels like she is not sure who the “real Jamie” is. She’s spent a lot of time changing herself to fit in – with new families, new schools, new friends. She hides her feelings a lot so that other people don’t know how to hurt her, think she’s crazy, or think she’s too hard to deal with, and sometimes she’s not sure what she really thinks or feels anymore.
- Feeling worried or scared: Most people wouldn’t know it to look at him, but Eddie spends a lot of his energy managing worries and fears. Even though he knows that a lot of the things that get him uptight are likely going to be okay and that he is safe now, he feels anxious almost all the time. Now, Eddie also has a hard time settling down to sleep because of the things he worries about. He does a lot of counting, and checking and rechecking things (like windows), and often picks at his skin or his hair to calm himself down when he’s feeling wound up.
- Really needing other people’s attention or approval: Lydia’s aunt tells her that she’s “full of drama” because her friendships are intense and she’s always in a relationship. When Lydia is alone, she feels afraid and as if she’s been abandoned. She worries about what others will think of her and feels terrified of being left all alone. Lydia grew up with a mom who was often using and unable to care for her, and even though she knows she’s in a safe home now, she’s still afraid that others won’t like her enough to want to stick around.
Children and teens who have experienced trauma may be labeled with many different psychiatric diagnoses (such as depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder). Psychiatric diagnoses are typically given by mental health providers – such as therapists, school counselors, and psychiatrists – who are trying to find good treatment matches, explain why kids might be acting the way they are, or communicate with other providers. No label will tell your whole story – it’s just one way for people to understand you, and to help others support you. Some kids who have experienced trauma will be given many different labels, and other kids will be given none at all. Most important is for you to understand why you do what you do, to identify what it is you want for yourself, and to get the supports that you need to help you to get there. Here are a few of the diagnoses people might have used to describe your behaviors or experiences:
- PTSD (or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder) is a group of symptoms that may happen to people who have been through traumatic experiences. Some of the symptoms include nightmares; thinking about hard experiences even when you don’t want to; avoiding people, places, things, or thoughts that remind you of what happened; constantly being on the look out for danger; feeling moody or feeling like what happened was your fault; and feeling numb or disconnected from your feelings or from people around you.
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder is a label used to describe people who feel anxious or on edge all the time. Even little things in life make them feel nervous and they can’t seem to relax. To not feel so anxious, people often start avoiding things that they used to enjoy – like hanging out with friends or going to school.
- Major Depressive Disorder is what happens when someone’s overall feeling about themselves, others, and their life is negative. They may sleep too much or too little, have changes in eating patterns, feel hopeless about their future, have thoughts about dying, or feel worthless. These feelings go beyond feeling sad – it’s like being under a cloud that you can’t shake and that stays with you for weeks at a time.
- Substance Abuse means that someone has become dependent on taking drugs or drinking alcohol, often to try to manage really hard feelings or thoughts. When someone is abusing substances, they may feel physically sick or very, very anxious when they are not able to take the drug or drink.
- Oppositional Defiant Disorder is a label given to children and adolescents who frequently get into trouble for not following rules or doing what they are supposed to. They may regularly get into fights with others (caregivers, friends, teachers), or refuse to follow expectations.
- Developmental Trauma Disorder is not an official diagnosis, but is a description that is being studied, to better understand the symptoms (thoughts, feelings, and behaviors) of children and adolescents who have experienced many years of stressful life events (like the traumatic experiences listed above). Developmental trauma can show up in many different ways, and the symptoms are much like those described in the section above.
No matter what diagnosis you have been given, one of the beliefs that we have about how children and adolescents (and their families) respond to trauma is that behavior makes sense. In other words, the likelihood is that many of the behaviors that you have developed over time are ones that helped you to survive your experiences, your environment, your thoughts, and your feelings.