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Childhood Trauma in Early Care and Education Settings

Watching very young children at play, it’s natural to assume that their lives are as free of cares and worries, and simply about having fun. Yet many people may be surprised to learn that trauma and emotional distress are actually quite prevalent among pre-school children. In fact, research shows that when exposed to traumatic events, even children as young as 18 months can develop serious psychological problems later in childhood and in adulthood. As they grow, these children take with them the effects of traumatic events, and are more likely to experience problems with substance abuse, depression, and stress management as a result.

Young children also may be traumatized when they witness disturbing acts in their neighborhood or hear about them on TV. Even the childcare environment itself can be the setting for trauma when a child is repeatedly bullied by another.

What makes early childhood trauma particularly difficult to identify is the variability in the child’s response. Children who have been traumatized may be unable to control their emotions, act impulsively, overreact to loud or sudden noises, or withdraw excessively. Other times, the effects of trauma are physical—frequent headaches, stomachaches, or fatigue. An added complication is that very young children are often unable to verbalize a traumatic event and why they are distressed. They may show signs of stress for a short time then return to their seemingly “normal” selves.

Regardless of the reaction or how long it appears to last, trauma can seriously disrupt a young child’s social and emotional development. Chronic exposure to traumatic events can impair his or her ability to focus, organize and process information, and solve problems. There may also be negative effects on academic performance, self-confidence, and socialization as the child grow older.

The good news is that children who experience trauma can recover if they have the support of positive, caring adults who provide structure, comfort, and guidance. That is why it is important that caregivers be alert to the signs of trauma in pre-school children and know where to seek assistance from community resources such as [INSERT NAME OF LOCAL COMMUNITY AGENCY]. An early response may help the child receive the help necessary to cope and build resilience for the future.

Caregivers also can assist in the resilience-building process by establishing a sense of safety in the childcare environment through the use of appropriate games or other activities, or by simply talking with the child in a caring and supportive way, caregivers can help restore a sense of emotional well-being.

Studies show that such collaborative strategies are highly successful. In [COMMUNITY NAME], for example, [INSERT DETAILS.]

To learn more about early childhood trauma and its effects on young children, contact [LOCAL COMMUNITY AGENCY PHONE #/EMAIL ADDRESS]. Information is also available online from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (www.samhsa.gov/children).

These resources will help you identify behaviors that arise from exposure to traumatic events, how these behaviors can differ from a child’s natural shyness or difficulty adjusting to new environments, and steps for seeking help if needed.

Exposure to trauma may be difficult for very young children to deal with, but they can recover. You can help.


If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs to talk, please call 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).

Return to main page of SAMHSA.gov/Children | For more information, click here to email AwarenessDay2014@vancomm.com