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Understanding How Trauma Impacts Children’s Behavior

07 Jul 2020 by Liz Savage

Childhood traumatic stress occurs when violent or dangerous events overwhelm a child’s or adolescent’s ability to cope. The signs of traumatic stress are different in each child and young children often react differently than older children. As children and teachers return to classrooms, many of them may be communicating their traumatic experiences while at home through their behavior. To better understand what that could look like, we reached out to Jimmy Venza, P.h.D. and Amber Ricks, Psy.D. of The Lourie Center for Children’s Social and Emotional Wellness. 

To hear more from these experts, you can also join our upcoming webinar, The Impact of Trauma on Behavior: Seeing Childrens’ Actions As Communication, where they will discuss how traumatic experiences can impact children’s behavior and what we can do as adults to support these children. They’ll explore ways in which educators and caregivers can observe and understand these behaviors as forms of communication and appropriately respond.

How Do Children Communicate With Us Through Behavior? 

Jimmy:  We know that adult communication is much more non-verbal than it is verbal. So this link to trauma is very powerful in the classroom because of what trauma does to a child's body. It is so threatening and so distressing, that it imprints. It has such a strong impression on the body that Is registered in memory and body memory. And then that experience of adversity will then come and walk right into your classroom, or if you're caring for infants, the little one will be carried right into your childcare. And so it is an opportunity to keep curious about how and what is being communicated through to behavior.

Amber:  When trauma happens, especially for children, verbal development is often the last step in a series of development. They develop physically, they develop emotionally, they develop in terms of comprehension. But in order to produce language, that's often the last step. 

And so when something traumatic happens, a lot of the brain resources are devoted just to survival, and they’ve diverted away from those verbal processing abilities. So even if you have an 11-year-old who's normally really verbal and able to talk for days about a book that they read, when it comes to a traumatic experience and their brain really was focusing on keeping themselves safe, they may lose those language abilities. So, recognizing that for even the most verbal among us, when trauma happens, it's likely going to be in your body, in physical memories, and not necessarily in organized narratives.

That's really important to keep in mind when seeing kids who might have experienced trauma, because rather than saying “this thing happened to me”, they're going to be expressing through physical or interpersonal relationships that something happened to them that was really hard and really scary and really disorganized.

What Do Teachers Need to Know as Students Prepare to Return from Potentially Traumatic Experiences at Home? 

Amber : I think one theme that we keep talking about is the importance of relationships. And with there being so much uncertainty about what the future might bring, that just underscores the importance of prioritizing the relationship and thinking really creatively and flexibly about how we establish those bonds. And how do we create a community, even if it's not in person?  We’re making sure that there's an emphasis put on that- both from teachers to students, establishing really strong connections, especially with kids who might be more disconnected. But then also administrators and colleagues, creating community and relationships. This will be a time when we need those the most in order to promote good outcomes.

Interested in learning more from Jimmy and Amber on how to understand students' non-verbal communication and support children as they return to classrooms? Register today for our webinar, The Impact of Trauma on Behavior: Seeing Children's Actions As Communication.

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