Adults often think of childhood as fun and innocent, but an estimated 34.8 million American kids have adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).1 Some kids are traumatized by extreme acts of violence, like school shootings, but everyday experiences like bullying and emotional abuse can profoundly impact children’s emotional and physical well-being as well. Fortunately, many effective methods exist for counseling children dealing with trauma.
Keep reading to discover common causes and symptoms of trauma in children and explore popular counseling methods.
Events That Cause Trauma in Children
Adverse childhood experiences occur with shocking frequency and often go unrecognized by adults. Experts estimate that over 66% of children and teenagers will live through at least one traumatic event by the age of 16.2 Often, these incidents occur in the spaces where kids should feel the safest, like their home or school. Events that cause trauma in children include the following.
Child Abuse and Neglect
At least one in seven American children experience abuse or neglect annually. Often, kids are abused by adult authority figures like parents, athletic coaches, and teachers.3
Childhood abuse takes many forms. Most obviously, children are often victims of physical violence, such as hitting, pinching, or shaking. Emotionally abusive behaviors like name-calling and threats can also have a lasting impact on vulnerable youth.3 Sexual abuse is another serious problem that affects around 25% of girls and 8% of boys.4
The scars from this abuse is much more than skin deep. Abused and neglected children may develop lifelong emotional and psychological disorders, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).3
Schools should be havens for learning, but children unfortunately often experience violence at these institutions. In 2022, gunfire occurred at least 177 times on school property in America, leading to 148 injuries and 57 deaths. From these horrific events, children may develop mental health issues like PTSD or substance use disorders, and show poor academic performance.5
Additionally, 20% of children aged 12 to 18 report that they’ve been emotionally or physically bullied at school.6 Abuse from peers can significantly impact kids’ emotional and mental health, as well as their relationship with and interest in school.
Sudden or Violent Loss of a Loved One
Grief is a complex and sometimes unpredictable emotion, even for adults who have learned to understand and control their reactions to it. Witnessing or finding out about a loved one’s death can cause conflicting feelings for a young child, including guilt, shame, fear, relief, despondence, regret, and despair. Depending on their age, they may not even fully understand what the loss really means, which can cause a delayed and heightened reaction later.
Symptoms of Trauma in Children
With so many negative influences in the modern world, counselors, parents, and teachers should be alert for signs of trauma in children. This disorder can affect youth emotionally, mentally, or physically. Symptoms vary by age but may include:7
- Acting out traumatic experiences while playing
- Feeling hopeless and powerless
- Inability to feel positive emotions
- Scanning surroundings for danger
- Strong negative emotions like anger, fear, or sadness
- Withdrawing from family and friends
Middle and high school children with trauma may also engage in risky behaviors like abusing alcohol or drugs, self-harming, and having unsafe sex.2
Strategies to Counsel Children Dealing with Trauma
Counselors play a vital role in helping children process traumatic experiences and improving their well-being. Experts have developed several evidence-based treatment methods that specifically address the unique emotional and psychological needs of kids.
Popular approaches used to counsel children with trauma include the following.
Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Developed in the 1980s, trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) uses three approaches to treat children with trauma, including:8
- Psychoeducation: The counselor helps the child and their caregivers understand how trauma affects the patient’s overall wellbeing
- Skills development: The child learns strategies to cope with trauma, such as articulating their emotions to their parent or taking deep breaths
- Trauma narration: The counselor asks the patient to explain what happened to them and how they feel about it
Research shows that TF-CBT can successfully treat children aged three to 18 with PTSD, anxiety, and other disorders. Most youths need 12 to 18 sessions of this therapy, but people with severe trauma may require additional sessions.8
Parent-Child Interaction Therapy
Counselors often use parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT) to treat trauma in children aged two to seven. This method focuses on improving the relationship between the child and their caregiver through two approaches:9
- Child-directed interaction: The caregiver learns how to give positive attention and improve their bond with the child through play
- Parent-directed interaction: The counselor teaches the caregiver methods for appropriately disciplining the child, like time-outs
Typically, children and their caregivers attend PCIT sessions for 12 to 18 weeks. Between appointments, the adult practices PCIT skills with their child daily.9
Child-parent psychotherapy (CPP) treats children with trauma from infancy to age five. The approach focuses on helping kids develop positive relationships with adults and includes three phases:9
- Foundational phase: The counselor gathers information about the patient and their family and starts developing a relationship with them
- Core intervention: The clinician teaches the family strategies to help the child process trauma, including physical contact, play, and developing healthy responses to perceived threats
- Recapitulation and termination: The treatment ends by highlighting the child’s progress
Patients often receive CPP for 20 to 25 weekly sessions.9
Benefits of Counseling for Children with Trauma
Children with trauma often benefit immensely from individual sessions with a skilled and compassionate counselor. Research shows that counseling can lead to the following improvements.
Fewer Behavioral Issues
After receiving counseling, children with trauma have fewer instances of aggressive behavior and rule-breaking. Also, youth are less likely to feel anxious or depressed and avoid other people.10
Better Academic Performance
Research shows that counseling can boost children’s academic performance and help them function better in school. Plus, children with trauma have fewer school absences after receiving treatment.10
In one case study, children with a history of trauma reported marked improvements in their thoughts and behaviors related to suicide. 28% of children with trauma had fewer suicidal thoughts after receiving counseling, and 18% experienced a reduction in suicide attempts10
Guide Children Through Trauma with a Trained, Compassionate Hand
Childhood trauma is a serious and prevalent issue, but counselors can empower kids work through their issues to lead happier and healthier lives. With the Wurzweiler School’s Online Master of Social Work, you’ll learn the latest methods for counseling children with trauma and other mental health disorders so you can support them in the best ways possible. Get in touch with one of our Admissions Advisors today to learn how you can get started.
1. Retrieved on April 24, 2023, from nichq.org/insight/bringing-trauma-forefront-early-childhood-systems
2. Retrieved on April 24, 2023, from samhsa.gov/child-trauma/understanding-child-trauma
3. Retrieved on April 24, 2023, from cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childabuseandneglect/fastfact.html
4. Retrieved on April 24, 2023, from cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childsexualabuse/fastfact.html
5. Retrieved on April 24, 2023, from everytownresearch.org/maps/gunfire-on-school-grounds/
6. Retrieved on April 24, 2023, from nces.ed.gov/pubs2019/2019054.pdf
7. Retrieved on April 24, 2023, from cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/ptsd.html
8. Retrieved on April 24, 2023, from apa.org/monitor/2015/12/helping-children
9. Retrieved on April 24, 2023, from ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7163896/
10. Retrieved on April 24, 2023, from samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/brief_report_natl_childrens_mh_awareness_day.pdf