Surviving Childhood: An Introduction to the Impact of Trauma

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Lesson 1: Introduction to Childhood Trauma
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Introduction to Childhood Trauma

Figure 1-1: Introduction to childhood trauma.

Physical abuse, rapes, hurricanes, fires, car accidents, witnessing violence, multiple painful medical procedures, life-threatening medical conditions, sudden death of a parent, threat of violence at school or home.

In the United States alone, approximately five million children experience some form of traumatic event each year. More than two million of these children are victims of physical and/or sexual abuse. Millions more live in the terrorizing atmosphere of domestic violence.

By the time a child reaches the age of 18, the probability that he or she will have been touched directly by interpersonal or community violence is approximately one in four. Across the world, these numbers are even more astounding. In some war-torn countries, more than 60 percent of the children are displaced and chronically traumatized.

These numbers are more than mere statistics. No one remains unscathed by traumatic events. First, trauma can have a devastating impact on the individual child, profoundly altering physical, emotional, cognitive, and social development. Second, the child's experience directly impacts his or her family and community.

We now know that a child's potential to be creative, productive, healthy, and caring depends upon his or her experiences in childhood, and if these experiences are threatening, chaotic, and traumatic, the child's potential is diminished. Ultimately, we all pay the price exacted by childhood trauma, whether we are dealing with individual children or large numbers of scarred adults assuming their places in society.

Before we continue, here are our course objectives:

Course Objectives

1.  Provide an overview of key principles of neurodevelopment crucial for understanding the role of experience in defining functional and physical organization of the brain

2.  Describe the emerging clinical and research findings in maltreated children that suggest the negative impact of abuse, neglect and trauma on brain development

3. Outline the clinical implications of a neurodevelopmental approach to child maltreatment

4. Discuss the role of public policy and preventative practices in context of the impact of maltreatment on children's emotional, behavioral, cognitive, social and physical health

What Exactly Is Trauma?

Before we go any further, I want to clarify what "trauma" means for the purposes of this course. A trauma is a psychologically distressing event that is outside the range of usual human experience. Trauma often involves a sense of intense fear, terror, and helplessness.

Trauma should not be confused with stress. As we will learn later, stress is an inevitable component of everyone's life. Trauma is an experience that induces an abnormally intense and prolonged stress response.

Simply by signing up for this course, you have expressed an interest in childhood trauma and perhaps count yourself or someone you love among the statistics cited above. Maybe you know a child who is a victim of childhood trauma, or are an adult still grappling with your own experience.

No matter what brings you here, take a moment now and identify someone or some event in your life or work that makes this issue real. While you take this course, your own experiences with traumatic events and with children or families impacted by trauma will provide the true context for learning.

Figure 1-2: Children and war.


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