Trauma-affected kids: How emotional pain impacts learning abilities

Trauma-affected kids: How emotional pain impacts learning abilities

What is childhood Trauma?

The national Institute of Mental Health USA defines childhood trauma as “The experience of an event by a child that is emotionally painful or distressful which often results in lasting mental and physical effects.”

Generally people tend to think of trauma as a result of something very frightening and upsetting, though this may be the case sometimes, it is not always true. Childhood trauma not only refers to scary, dangerous, violent or life-threatening events that happen in a child’s life within the age of 18, but also the experiences that children go through because of exposure in their early development to abuse, neglect, domestic violence, or violence in their surroundings is also trauma.

These types of events may not have to necessarily happen to a child but may happen to someone the child knows or as a result of seeing or hearing about somebody else being hurt or injured.

These experiences may overwhelm children, leaving them feeling upset or helpless. It is important to understand that these experiences can happen to anyone at any age and any time, though not all of them will have a traumatic impact.

The Effects of trauma:

At the simplest, children whose families and surroundings cannot provide consistent comfort, safety and protection may develop ways of coping which will allow them to survive and function in their everyday lives. They could be overly sensitive to the moods of others around them and may withhold their own emotions from others, never expressing anger, fear or sadness. These learned adaptations become a part of their growth even as they grow up and encounter situations that are safe, these learned behaviour will be counter-productive and will interfere with the capacity to live their life completely.

On the other hand, there could be a possible event in a child’s life which is scary, dangerous or violent which can become a traumatic experience to the child when they face it, as in if they witness an immediate threat to themselves, or to their loved ones which is sometimes followed by serious harm or injury.

When such events happen, they cause emotions such as fear, helplessness, loss and distress. Even adults experiencing these types of negative emotions cannot cope with it, and children on the other hand may have absolutely no agency or ability to stop the event from happening. The reaction to these traumatic events can have exceedingly lasting effects on children’s daily functioning, which includes possible changes in their mental, physical, emotional and social health.

Impact on Physical health:

Children keep developing throughout adulthood from infancy. Their normal biological function is determined by the environment they grow in, partially. When children grow up under constant stress or being afraid always, their immune systems and bodies’ stress response systems may not develop as they normally should. This will impact them later in life when they are adults and are exposed to very ordinary levels of stress, as their systems will automatically respond to them as if they are under extreme stress. For example; they may experience significant physiological reactions such as rapid heart-pounding and breathing, or may shut down entirely when faced with stressful situations. These normal reactions that they face because of the trauma may seem as overreacting or unresponsive and detached by other people.

Stress can impair and impact the development of the brain and the nervous system, as an absence of mental stimulation in neglectful and alignments may limit the brain from developing to its full potential. Apart from these children who had traumatic histories may develop chronic, recurrent physical complaints such as stomach aches or headaches, dizziness and so on. They may also frequently suffer from body dysregulation, that is, they over respond or under respond to a particular stimulus which may make them hypersensitive to sound, smell, touch or they may suffer from anaesthesia and analgesia, which is being unaware of touch, pain and physical sensations. These may result in them injuring themselves without feeling pain, or suffering problems and not being aware of them, or vice versa where they can complain of chronic illnesses and pains for which there is no physical evidence.

Impact on emotional health:

Children who have faced trauma or have been neglected have problems in identifying, expressing, and managing emotions. As they often internalise or externalise reactions to stress, resulting in experiencing significant depression, anger or anxiety, making their emotional responses unpredictable or explosive.

In children, these reactions to a reminder of a traumatic event may be trembling, sadness, anger or distancing themselves. These triggers of the traumatic past may be everywhere in their surroundings. Such children may react often, and react powerfully, with difficulty calming down when upset. Having perceived the world as a dangerous place or an unsafe place where they cannot defend or be protected, they tend to often be very vigilant and guarded in their interactions with others, and this defensive posture becomes problematic in situations that do not warrant such intense reactions. On the other hand, many children learn to tune out emotionally, to threats in their surroundings, which make them further vulnerable to re-victimisation.

Children like these will have problems forming relationships, and many of them wouldn’t be able to develop secure attachment to adults in their lives. It is important that we understand this as parents and caregivers and go that extra mile with children who show signs of trauma and try to bond with them.

According to Jamie Howard a clinical psychologist and head of the trauma and residence centre and the child mind Institute, “Kids who’ve never developed that early template that you can trust people, that you are lovable and that people will take care of you, need support to form that kind of relationship.”

Impact on learning abilities:

As discussed in the above point, children who have faced traumatic experiences have problems forming relationships with their teachers, which is a necessary step in having a successful classroom experience. This is because they’ve learnt to be wary of adults even when they appear to be reliable, since they have been ignored or neglected by those they have previously depended on.

According to Maslow’s hierarchy, the children whose physical needs are not met, such as need for safety and security cannot study or learn to their full potential, as they are still focused on basic needs such as physiological and emotional needs, making it difficult to concentrate in school.

These children tend to have lower cognitive functioning, behavioural issues, attendance issues, grade repeats, attention problems as well as achievement problems in school. Many researches have confirmed that students who experience trauma display poor academic performance overall.

As children are not capable of differentiating emotions and leaving certain emotions outside the classroom, the negative impact of trauma is brought into their reading situations. So children cannot concentrate on what’s happening in School, when they do not feel safe and are anxious, and fearful as well as are focused on suppressing their negative emotions and traumatic memories.

Also, children struggle with motivation, focus, concentration and personal connections, all of which are essential in promoting a good, healthy, learning experience.

Support and encouragement:

To help children with exposure to trauma teachers, caregivers, and parents need to understand that a greater understanding of trauma is necessary for them and to pay greater attention to them in all physical, emotional and cognitive levels.

We need to be very encouraging and understanding with such children, for them to have a future with a sense of hope and purpose. Showing children that they are important to you, by giving them enough of your time will make the child understand that they are valued and that they need to value themselves as well.

Along with understanding the importance of giving children as much positive attention as possible, it is important to understand that as a result of neglect or trauma elsewhere, children will try getting attention by provoking the adults as negative attention is fast, so make sure that positive attention is fast as well.

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