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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 lasing mental and physical effects.” However with the right support it is possible to recover even from extreme early trauma.


Types of childhood trauma

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (Felliti and Anda, 1998) classifies childhood trauma in ten categories:

  • Abuse of child: emotional, physical, sexual abuse
  • Trauma in child's household environment: substance abuse, parental separation and/or divorce, mentally ill or suicidal household member, violence to mother, imprisoned household member
  • Neglect of child: abandonment, child's basic physical and/or emotional needs unmet

The ACE International Questionnaire (ACE-IQ) was designed by the World Health Organisation to measure ACEs in all countries. It includes additional categories such as peer violence. Questions cover family dysfunction; physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect by parents or caregivers; peer violence; witnessing community violence, and exposure to collective violence. 

Early childhood trauma generally refers to the traumatic experiences that occur to children aged 0-6. Young children may experience traumatic stress from interpersonal traumas, accidents, natural disasters, war and civil unrest as well as medical procedures or the sudden loss of a parent/caregiver.


Childhood trauma prevalence

National community-based surveys consistently identify the high prevalence of traumatic experiences. One study showed that nearly half of all children in the United States are exposed to at least one traumatic social or family experience (Bethell, Newacheck, Hawes & Halfon, 2014). 

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study investigated the association between childhood trauma and adult health in over 17,000 predominantly white, middle class Americans (Felliti et al., 1998). It showed that adverse childhood experiences are vastly more common than recognized or acknowledged and that they have a powerful effect on adult health a half-century later (Felliti, 2002). In the ten categories of childhood maltreatment identified trauma was found to be common: 29.5% of respondents reported parental substance use; 27 % physical abuse; 24.7 % sexual abuse; 24.5 % parental separation or divorce; 23.3% household mental illness; 16.7% emotional neglect; 13.7% mother treated violently; 13.1 % emotional abuse; 9.2% physical neglect; and 5.2% an incarcerated household member (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016).

Almost two-thirds of study participants reported at least one ACE category and more than one in five reported three or more.