Trauma in early childhood can have a lingering effect throughout life

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“It’s easy to assume that babies don’t remember trauma because they express their experiences differently,” said Tessa Chesher, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Oklahoma State University who specializes in mental health of infants and young children. E-mail. “AT [8 to 12] weeks of age, babies have stored enough memories that [the babies] begin to anticipate their caregiver’s behavior based on past behaviors. They begin to react based on the experiences they have had.

“Vulnerable to stress-related illnesses”

Evelyn Wotherspoon, a social worker specializing in infant mental health, said that as they reach adulthood, “infants and very young children who have been exposed early to trauma and chronic stress …are more vulnerable to stress-related health problems, such as diabetes and mental illness.” health problems, drug addiction and obesity. These children are much more vulnerable to all these stress-related illnesses, and their brains may not develop as they should.

Although infants and young children are just developing, infant mental health experts say they can experience a wide range of feelings, including negative emotions, sadness or anxiety. A report from the American Academy of Pediatrics found that by age 16, more than 2 out of 3 children reported having experienced a traumatic event.

According to a report by the World Association for Infant Mental Health Task Force, rates of mental health disorders among infants (which typically include birth through age 3) are comparable to those of older children and adolescents. And a small study of one-year-olds found that 44% of those who witnessed serious violence against their mothers by an intimate partner showed symptoms of trauma afterwards, such as increased arousal, increased aggression or interference with normal infant development. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, infants and young children (under 4 years old) can develop post-traumatic stress disorder after events.

Kathleen Mulrooney, a counselor who is also program director for the infant and early childhood mental health program for Zero to Three, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of babies and toddlers , said it is important to note that not all infants who experience trauma will be traumatized. As with adults, it depends on the infant, “because what’s traumatic for one person isn’t for someone else,” Mulrooney says.

In this context, caregivers can play a key role in protecting young children from the effects of trauma through the way they respond. “The ability of parents or key caregivers to provide protection, to play a co-regulatory role with respect to the stress response is critical,” Mulrooney said in an email.

If a child experiences significant trauma before age 2 but after the trauma, “the baby has the powerful protective factors of safety, love, and security; there is a decreased likelihood of having mental health issues,” Chesher explained in an email. “It doesn’t mean the baby didn’t suffer or his body doesn’t remember that trauma, it means there were protective factors around to mitigate the effects of the trauma.”

Regina Sullivan, a developmental behavioral neuroscientist and professor of psychiatry at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, says that while a primary caregiver can’t “protect a small child from trauma in the environment — it’s called a social buffer because the child’s fear response and hormonal response to stress are reduced – more recently we have shown that the caregiver actually blocks neural activity in the amygdala, the area of ​​the brain responsible for fear.

“Many brain areas in infants and young children are physically altered, and the ability of those brain areas to talk to each other is also altered by trauma,” Sullivan said.

Trauma can be hard to recognize

Yet early childhood trauma can be difficult to recognize given that infants are not yet verbal and rely on their caregivers to meet their needs, which means a caregiver should be attuned to symptoms and ask for help.

“A baby can’t just walk up to you and say, ‘Hey, it happened yesterday, I’m scared,'” Chesher says. how to read that language, and so if we don’t know the red flags, then we don’t identify the trauma and we can have longer term effects on the brain.

Experts say some red flags of trauma for babies under 12 months are: problems feeding or sleeping and not being able to be comforted by their caregiver. A toddler (between 1 and 3 years old) can express themselves more verbally and physically than a baby. Some red flags of trauma in this age group may involve repeating traumatic events in their play or becoming aggressive, Chesher says.

“One of the issues is how this child is expressing trauma may be through disruptive sleep or being a little more restless,” Sullivan says, “things that happen in normal children for a multitude of reasons, which makes it difficult to identify which child is going to respond to the trauma in a way that will be lasting and damaging.

If a parent or other caregiver is concerned, depending on a child’s behavior and experiences, they should “ask for a referral to an infant and early childhood mental health specialist,” says Chesher.

Experts will look at a variety of factors, the most critical being the relationship between the baby and their primary caregiver. In addition to observing this interaction, mental health experts may also look at “pregnancy history, birth history, medical history, developmental history, security guards, perinatal depression screening officers [for both parents]how the infant eats and how he sleeps,” explains Chesher.

Depending on the age of the child, different interventions are available, including parent-child psychotherapy.

“It’s critical that parents or…their caregivers…are involved in a major way in treatment, because it’s really through relationships with adult caregivers that infants thrive and do well,” says Zeanah.

To recover, an infant needs a caregiver in their life who can accurately read their cues and respond in a caring and patient way, Wotherspoon says. “One of the most powerful therapeutic tools we have is the relationship a child has with a caring caregiver and they only need one and they don’t need to be perfect. … An infant who gets this early enough can recover beautifully from trauma,” says Wotherspoon.

Raising awareness among parents and physicians about infant and early childhood mental health is essential, experts say. But it’s also important for parents to understand what trauma is and isn’t. A child “being distressed is different from being traumatized,” says Zeanah.

“It is important to distinguish between everyday events that might frighten the child and are important for the child to learn to regulate their emotions and physiology from the trauma of horrific events such as a tornado or a parent that unnecessarily traumatizes the child repeatedly through verbal or physical aggression,” Sullivan says.

“We want parents to enjoy this time in their lives and not worry about traumatizing their child by making them eat vegetables or get vaccinated,” she adds. “These are normal life experiences that the child should have as part of [the] current world. »

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