Understanding the Characteristics of Traumatized Children
One of your primary responsibilities as an educator is to keep children safe, but the reality is that not every child has a safe, warm, and loving home environment to go to at the end of the day. Children may experience physical or emotional abuse, neglect, abandonment, or some other traumatizing event. Understanding the characteristics of traumatized children and learning how you can spot children who are in negative situations and need help is an important component of making sure children are in safe environments at home and in school. In her book Reaching and Teaching Children Exposed to Trauma, Barbara Sorrels, EdD, outlines the following characteristics of traumatized children.
- Difficult to Soothe – If infants were exposed to substances or toxic stress in utero, they may be chronically fussy and difficult to comfort.
- Feeding Issues – Stress often has a strong effect on digestion, so infants may chronically spit up or have gas or constipation issues.
- Resistant to Touch – Prenatal insult, early medical trauma, prematurity, early neglect, and abuse are all factors that may cause an infant to resist being held. Babies may arch their backs or refuse to mold to the caregiver's body when being held. They'll often try to wiggle out of the arms of the adult and may loudly protest.
- Lack of Play – Infants typically become very playful at around four months of age, and they'll begin to issue invitations for interactions with caregivers. However, traumatized and neglected infants often show little interest and ability to engage in playful interactions with adults.
- Language Delay – A significant delay in language development is a strong indicator of trauma and neglect. Infants learn to communicate out of a natural drive to interact and connect with the people who love and care for them. Maltreated infants and toddlers often have little experience with reading, singing, nursery rhymes, chants, and games.
- Alternatively Fearful and Aggressive – Toddlers who have experienced trauma have frequent temper tantrums, and their behavior can be highly contradictory and extreme. For example, they will often hit and bite other children even without provocation.
- Withdrawal – While some maltreated children are aggressive, others will be withdrawn. They'll rarely interact with others, and they may sit quietly and stare into space. Keep in mind that some children are just slow to warm up by nature, but maltreated children never warm up and are consistently withdrawn or actively resist interaction.
- Refusal to Be Comforted When Hurt – Toddlers who have experienced trauma and abuse often resist efforts by adults to comfort them when they fall down. They will often to turn to things for comfort rather than people.
Three- to Five-Year-Olds
- Precocious Self-Care – Maltreated children often do things that typically developing children don't do yet, but they often struggle with things that are typical for their age. For example, a child may be able to prepare a bottle for his or her baby sister but not be able to use scissors yet.
- Gorges or Hoards Food – Children who experience starvation in utero or during the first years of life are likely to gorge to the point of throwing up or hoard food to save for later. They may even take food out of other children's lunches or backpacks as a survival mechanism.
- Difficulty with Transitions – Children who have experienced trauma tend to be more rigid and inflexible in their behavior. Transitions often cause children to be defiant, aggressive, and anxious.
- Hypervigilant – Maltreated children are often hypersensitive to their surroundings and notice any threat to their physical or emotional well-being. This often makes it difficult for them to settle down and focus because they can't tune the unimportant things out.
For additional characteristics of traumatized children and tips and resources you can use to help them in the classroom, be sure to read Reaching and Teaching Children Exposed to Trauma. We also have a variety of helpful materials and resources available in the Social and Emotional section of our website.