Mention the word trauma to Americans in the 21st century, and their thoughts are likely to turn to images of terrorism, war, natural disasters and a seemingly continual stream of school shootings. The horrific scenes at Newtown and Columbine still dominate public consciousness, particularly when our society discusses child trauma. While those events make headlines, however, counseling professionals say the most pervasive traumatic threat to children is found not in big events or stranger danger, but in chronic and systemic violence that happens in or close to the home.
This kind of ongoing trauma, much of which takes place out of public view, leaves deep scars that can cause a lifetime of emotional, mental, physical and social dysfunction if left untreated. Research shows that chronic, complex trauma can even rewire a child’s brain, leading to cognitive and developmental issues.
The good news is that counselors in all areas of practice — in schools, agencies, shelters, clinics, private practice and elsewhere — can and are working with children and, when possible, their parents to stop the cycle of violence, or at least to mitigate its effects.
Behind closed doors
The number of children exposed to violence in the United States is staggering. According to the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence (NatSCEV), funded by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and carried out by the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes against Children Research Center, more than 60 percent of children surveyed had been exposed to direct or indirect violence during the 12 months prior to the survey. Nearly half — 46.3 percent — had been assaulted at least once in the past year, meaning they had experienced one or more of the following: any physical assault, assault with a weapon, assault with injury, attempted assault, attempted or completed kidnapping, assault by a brother or sister, assault by another child or adolescent, nonsexual genital assault, dating violence, bias attacks or threats. One in 10 had experienced some form of maltreatment, which includes nonsexual physical abuse, psychological or emotional abuse, child neglect and custodial interference. Other CDC research indicates that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are victims of sexual abuse. However, many experts emphasize that due to the stigma involved, sexual abuse is underreported.
Significant exposure to violence and trauma can also lead to illness later in life. From 1995-1997, the CDC, in collaboration with Kaiser Permanente, collected detailed medical information from 17,000 patients at Kaiser’s Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego. These patients also answered detailed questions about childhood experiences of abuse, neglect and family dysfunction. The initial study, Adverse Childhood Experiences, as well as more than 50 studies since using the same population, found that adult survivors of childhood abuse are more likely to develop chronic conditions and diseases such as heart disease, obesity, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and liver disease. They are also more likely to engage in risky health behaviors such as smoking and drug and alcohol abuse. In addition, adult survivors of child abuse may have autobiographical memory problems; exhibit increased problems with depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses; and struggle with suicidal tendencies.
NatSCEV data, collected between January and May 2008, indicate that one in 10 children surveyed experienced five or more incidents of direct violence. It is this kind of ongoing abuse that can cause polyvictimization, or what many researchers call complex trauma — repeated exposure to traumatic events over time and often at the hands of caregivers or other loved ones.
“This cumulative trauma has much more serious effects than a single event,” says David Lawson, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and licensed marriage and family therapist in Nacogdoches, Texas, who has worked with victims and perpetrators of sexual and domestic abuse since the 1980s. Because the abuse is ongoing, it disrupts a child’s sense of security, safety and self and alters the way he or she sees others, explains Lawson, an American Counseling Association member who is also a researcher and professor in the school psychology and counseling program at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches.
“In childhood, attachments are still forming, and abuse can shatter this developing ability,” says Jennifer Baggerly, an ACA member, LPC and play therapist who studies child trauma intervention. “It can also distort their forming personality and the way they interact with people as a whole.” This distortion can cause the child to believe that the world is an unsafe place and that people aren’t trustworthy, adds Baggerly, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Counseling and Human Services at the University of North Texas at Dallas.
That pattern of uncertainty and instability can cause cognitive distortion, dissociation and problems with emotional self-regulation and relationship formation, and even alter a child’s brain structure, notes Lawson, the author of Family Violence: Explanations and Evidence-Based Clinical Practice, published by ACA in 2013.
“Children get stuck in flight or fight,” adds Baggerly. “Everything is a threat, so instead of strengthening the prefrontal cortex, the brain operates more from the limbic system, which causes them to be more hypervigilant.”
Because they are almost constantly on alert, these children and adolescents most of the time use what Lawson calls their “survival brain” instead of their “learning brain.” Childhood and adolescence are periods in which the brain is developing rapidly and crucial cognitive skills are being learned. If children and adolescents spend too much time in survival mode, they are not accessing areas in the brain that are responsible for learning developmentally appropriate cognitive skills and laying down the neural pathways that are critical to future learning.
“As the child gets older, this chronic hypervigilance — and the overload of cortisol that comes with it — completely remaps the brain and just stifles development,” says Gail Roaten, president-elect of the Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling, a division of ACA. “You see them lose ground cognitively, especially in their ability to learn.”
Support and stability
Traumatized children’s problems with cognition, learning, self-regulation and development can last a lifetime, making it more likely that they will continue the cycle of abuse in their relationships, abuse drugs and alcohol, have trouble finding and keeping jobs or end up in the criminal justice system. Adults who were traumatized as children also are much more likely to face a host of physical and mental health problems.
The situation is far from hopeless, however. Counseling interventions for trauma can make a dramatic difference, and the earlier a child starts receiving therapy, the better. A variety of techniques have proved to be effective, but interventions are most successful when a supportive environment is created, Lawson emphasizes. Whenever possible, a parent or parents should be participants in a child’s therapy (as long as they are not the perpetrators of the abuse), and if not the biological parents, then foster parents or grandparents.
“I try to bring in whoever can help build a support system for the child,” Lawson says, “because an hour a week [of counseling] is woefully inadequate, and I need to have them able to take what they learn in therapy into the home.”
In many cases, parents or caregivers need help learning how to support the abused child emotionally, he says. When parents come to sessions with their children, the counselor can help the parents learn not just the best way to support the child in therapy, but also how to strengthen their parenting skills.
“We really emphasize connection,” Lawson says. “Once they [abused children] have attachment, they may be ready to tell parents about their abuse and may just blurt it out at home. I try to prepare parents to listen to the child. If the parents are not comfortable addressing this [topic], I have them at least write down what the child says and then use that as a therapeutic prompt.”
In sessions, Lawson guides parents, teaching them how to interact and better bond with children who have been traumatized. Some parents and caregivers have never really learned how to play with their children, he says.
At the same time, he notes that learning positive interaction skills is not just about the fun stuff. Parents and caregivers also need to know how to effectively discipline the child. “Many times when parents find out that their child has been abused, they are hesitant to discipline or correct behavior because they feel sorry for them,” he says. “Or they come down too hard.”
Lawson encourages parents to use time-outs, to not respond when a child is acting out with attention-getting behavior and to not use corporal punishment.
In the absence of parents or other supportive adults, the counselor may become the stabilizing adult in a traumatized child’s life. Although the counselor is not with the child as often as a parent or caregiver would be, just having someone who is concerned and will listen to whatever the child wants to say can be enough for an abused child to start to heal, Lawson says, even if he or she never chooses to talk about the abuse. He notes that even in the absence of other supportive figures, the therapeutic bond between counselor and child can help in decreasing hyperarousal.
Counselors need to know that although it may seem best to address the child’s trauma right away, establishing and cementing the therapeutic relationship must come first, Lawson says. The child needs to feel safe and supported — even if it is only in the counselor’s office — before he or she can begin to process the trauma.
“You’re trying to get them in a safe place if possible, or at least a predictable place,” Lawson says. “Then we can start teaching them how to cope [with the trauma] without lashing out or
Abused children do not know how to cope with what they are experiencing, Lawson says. It is common for children who are traumatized to lash out in anger when stressed and to feel that the best way to establish some sort of stability in their lives is to try to control everything. They may be moody, irritable or withdrawn. Abused children may also bully and hit other children or turn their anger on themselves and engage in self-abusive behaviors such as cutting.
Once a child feels supported, the counselor can also begin to teach the child how to self-soothe. Lawson guides traumatized children in using calming techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing or grounding themselves by focusing on something external such as the ticking of the clock or the texture of their clothes. “The point is to experience emotions in a safe place and cut out bad coping behaviors,” he says.
Jennifer Foster, an assistant professor in the Department of Counselor Education and Counseling Psychology at Western Michigan University, studies child sexual abuse. Much of her research has involved listening to the narratives of abuse victims and how they perceive what has happened to them. Although these children display myriad reactions and emotions, Foster says two themes are always prominent: fear and safety.
“Child victims of sexual abuse often view the world as unsafe and are likely to enter counseling with unresolved fears,” Foster says. “They need help from their counselor to learn how to cope with their fears.”
“Although adults often see disclosure as a positive thing that will put an end to the abuse, for many children it is embarrassing and frightening, especially for those who feel at fault for their abuse and believe they will be blamed or, worse, not believed,” says Foster, who studied the experiences of sexually abused children for her dissertation.
Several counseling interventions are designed to help sexually abused children regain a sense of safety. One is called the “safe place technique,” in which a counselor guides the child in visualizing and vividly describing an imaginary safe place.
“The counselor may say, ‘Close your eyes and picture a special place where you feel completely safe,’” Foster explains. “This can be followed by specific questions to capture additional details such as: What do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel? What are you doing in your safe place? The details are recorded by the counselor and used to create a script.”
Once the safe place has been established, the child can return to it mentally anytime he or she feels stressed or scared, Foster says.
Another intervention called the “comfort kit,” developed by Liana Lowenstein, helps children who engage in nonsuicidal self-injury to learn self-soothing strategies, says Foster. “Counselors help children brainstorm and create a list of items that bring them comfort and make them feel better,” she explains. “Although the process is guided by the counselor, children are the ones who choose what will go inside their box or bag.”
Foster says children commonly include items such as a blanket, music, a favorite stuffed animal, written or recorded guided imagery, a stress ball, a list of relaxation activities, bubbles (for deep breathing exercises), a favorite book, a picture of a caring person or special place, a journal and pen, art supplies and a list of self-affirmations.
Foster is also a proponent of bibliotherapy. “Children’s books about sexual abuse can introduce child victims to others who have had similar experiences, which may lead to decreased feelings of isolation and normalize their trauma-related symptoms,” she says.
Books can also provide comfort, offer coping suggestions and teach kids important lessons such as that the abuse is not their fault, Foster adds.
Because fear is a predominant issue for child victims of sexual abuse, Foster also recommends stories that specifically address feeling afraid. Her suggestions include Once Upon a Time: Therapeutic Stories That Teach and Heal by Nancy Davis and A Terrible Thing Happened: A Story for Children Who Have Witnessed Violence or Trauma by Margaret Holmes. To help older adolescents explore their memories and feelings connected to sexual abuse, Foster recommends The Secret: Art & Healing from Sexual Abuse by Francie Lyshak-Stelzer. Foster notes that the author’s artwork is particularly effective at capturing fear and the myriad other feelings generated by abuse.
Finding relief through play
Play therapy is one of the most commonly used interventions with children, particularly those who have suffered complex trauma, meaning they have experienced long-term (and often multiple types of) abuse, says Roaten, an LPC who works with traumatized children in clinics and schools, and an associate professor at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas.
Most therapeutic playrooms feature a fairly specific set of toys that might include an art center, play dough, a Bobo doll (an inflatable plastic doll modeled after the inflatable clown used in Alfred Bandura’s seminal study on children and aggression), a dollhouse with miniature people, animal figures, toy weapons, costumes and a sandbox. These toys and activities help children to act out their experiences in a safe and less negative manner, Roaten says. For instance, she recounts treating one child who “would just attack and slash the doll where the penis was. She was a victim of sexual abuse.”
In some cases, Roaten says, children just “play through,” processing their trauma entirely through play without needing to talk to the play therapist.
In many instances, Baggerly says, traumatized children act out things they aren’t able to verbalize. She once treated a 6-year-old who didn’t speak for about 10 sessions because the girl had a severe case of internalized anxiety and depression. But as the girl played, she would express her rage by taking a gun and shooting the Bobo doll in the head, stomach and groin area. Baggerly took this cue as a chance to ask the child about the anger and hurt she was feeling.
Catherine Tucker, a licensed mental health counselor who works with traumatized children in her role as a counselor supervisor and consultant, uses a child and family therapy called Theraplay, which was developed by the Theraplay Institute in the 1960s. “Theraplay works on a four-dimensional model: structure, nurture, engagement and challenge,” says Tucker, an associate professor in the college of education at Indiana State University.
Theraplay builds and enhances attachment, self-esteem, trust in others and engagement through participation in simple games. The idea is that the four dimensions — structure, nurture, engagement and challenge — are needed by children for healthy emotional and psychological development. The “play” in Theraplay is built around activities that teach participants what the elements of those dimensions are. Ideally, children engage in Theraplay with their parents or caregivers. Participating together teaches skills to parents or caregivers who don’t know how to provide the four dimensions, while enhancing the bond with the child. In the absence of parents or caregivers — whether because they are abusive or because they cannot or do not want to participate — the counselor plays directly with the child so the child can still learn how to interact in an emotionally healthy way.
The games and activities are simple — suitable for children as young as 1, yet still engaging for older children — and include things such as blowing bubbles, playing with stuffed animals, cotton ball hockey, cotton ball wars and newspaper basketball. The activities teach parenting skills and also help traumatized children with affect regulation, impulse control, feeling safe and not feeling like they have to be in control of the world, Tucker says. She notes that, oftentimes, kids who have suffered trauma feel like they have to be in charge either because a parent is abusive or simply doesn’t know how to provide a sense of security or stability, or because the child’s sense of control is being undermined by the abuse he or she experienced at the hands of another adult or peer.
Finding help at school
Counselors who are treating traumatized children should tap all available resources to help these clients, Lawson says, working not only with caregivers or other relatives but also with the child’s school. School counselors may be a source of additional one-on-one counseling for the child, or they could get the child involved in group activities with other children who are trauma victims or with children who share common interests such as music, sports or art, Lawson says. These peer networks provide abused children additional sources of support and can also teach them how to interact with people — something that many abused and isolated children have never learned to do.
Perpetrators of abuse seek to control and isolate their victims. An abusive parent has the power to cut off or severely limit a child’s healthy interactions with people outside of the circle of abuse. “[These] kids often didn’t learn social skills because they are kept away from other people,” Lawson says.
Abuse is often part of a viciously long-lived cycle, handed down from generation to generation, Lawson adds. Parents who were abused as children often grow up to abuse their own children. Even if parents with an abusive background are not abusive themselves, they may still carry on other dysfunctional behaviors, he says.
“You may have three or four generations of people [who] have a very skewed view of how to interact with people,” he says. “So they never learn how to interact with others. You have to help [these children] connect with other sources.”
School counselors also can play important roles as advocates and educators. Many people — including teachers and administrators — do not understand that many children who act out are doing so because they have been or are being abused, Tucker asserts.
“School counselors can really make a difference by making sure that kids get evaluated instead of just automatically disciplined,” Tucker says.
“So many boys end up in the criminal justice system because they were physically acting out in response to trauma,” she adds.
School counselors can also help abused and traumatized children learn how to help themselves, says Elsa Leggett, an ACA member, associate professor of counseling at the University of Houston-Victoria and president of the Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling.
“Talk to kids about safety plans,” Leggett urges. “Ask them, ‘When abusive things are going on at home, where do you go? How do you know when things are getting dangerous?’”
The most important thing that all practicing counselors can do to address childhood trauma is to ask questions, Lawson says. Children — and sometimes adults who were traumatized as children — don’t always recognize what they’ve experienced as abuse, so rather than asking “have you been abused?” Lawson instructs his students to pose questions such as “has anyone ever hit you?” and “has anyone ever touched you in a way that made you feel uncomfortable?”
ACA member Cynthia Miller is an assistant professor of counseling at South University in Richmond, Virginia, and an LPC who has worked with incarcerated women. She has seen the kind of positive change that can occur when people get the help they need, but she has also witnessed the pattern of incarceration, addiction and institutionalization that can become entrenched in generation after generation.
“If you want to decrease the amount of money we spend on treating people with substance abuse or incarceration,” Miller says, “address child abuse.”
Caring for children during a disaster
Although ongoing trauma causes the biggest and longest-lasting kind of damage, one-time events can also create problems that linger. It is particularly important for children to receive timely counseling intervention, experts say.
“Typically, most children will have short-term responses to a disaster that include five basic realms,” Baggerly says. These realms are:
- Physical: Symptoms include headache or stomachache
- Thought process: Children exhibit confusion and inattention
- Emotional: Children are scared and sad
- Behavioral: Children might become very withdrawn or clingy, or may start sucking their thumb or wetting the bed again
- Spiritual/worldview: Children may question their beliefs about God and the world
(For more information about typical trauma responses and recommended interventions, see “Children’s trauma responses and intervention guidelines” below.)
“Typically these [responses] don’t last long,” Baggerly says, “but that depends on the kind of support kids get in the immediate aftermath.”
Ultimately, the purpose of any counseling intervention after a traumatic event is to reduce or eliminate a child’s anxiety and stress, Baggerly asserts. She attempts to do that by “resetting” the child and connecting him or her to coping strategies.
“They need caring family and community support,” Baggerly says, “but if it is a huge disaster, then parents and teachers are equally traumatized, so they are not able to give support to kids. That’s when you need to bring people from outside.”
Some children are at greater risk than others, Baggerly says. “Kids who don’t have supportive family [and] who already have anxiety or have some type of developmental disability often will have ongoing symptoms that go longer than 30 days,” she explains. “Counselors need to triage to find out who is at most risk.”
During her roughly dozen years of experience working with chronic trauma and disasters, Baggerly has developed an integrated approach that she calls disaster response play therapy. The approach uses a trauma-informed philosophy in which counselors train parents and teachers in typical and atypical reactions to disasters so they can screen children and determine which ones need more help, she explains. “We also normalize typical symptoms, provide psychoeducation that informs kids about the impact of disasters, teach them coping strategies and provide them with child-centered play therapy.”
Baggerly usually begins by gathering a group of children and talking with them about rebuilding the community. She also encourages children to use expressive arts or drama to communicate their feelings.
“The other part of what we do is facilitate connection and conversation between kids and parents,” Baggerly says. “We may start out with Theraplay and do structured activities, such as holding hands or singing ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat.’ The point is to have them [parents and children] looking at each other so that the mirror neurons can be engaged.”
Baggerly also educates parents on activities they can do at home with their children. She refers them to an online workbook, “After the Storm,” which has scales of 1 to 10 or a thermometer that kids can fill in to indicate how much stress they are feeling.
Roaten often does volunteer trauma work and provided on-site support in the wake of the April 2013 fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, that killed 15 people, injured more than 150 and caused extensive damage to buildings and property.
“One girl, a seventh-grader, had been standing outside in a neighborhood with a view of the plant and observed the explosion itself,” Roaten says. “So she had that image in her head and it would not go away. I taught her some deep breathing and progressive relaxation and did some guided imagery about her favorite place to be.
“When that picture came up in her mind, she could breathe, relax and go to her good place. By the fourth day I was there, she was no longer seeing the image.”
Roaten uses expressive therapy for children who aren’t very verbal or who don’t have the vocabulary to talk about their feelings. She brings a sand tray with miniatures of fences, people and buildings. She then allows children (and even adults) to set up scenarios or vignettes that help them express and act out what they are feeling.
“I might say something like, ‘Create your world before [Hurricane] Katrina; then create your world after Katrina,” Roaten explains.
Roaten also uses trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy to help children and adolescents learn coping skills.
“You teach them about trauma and its impact on them,” she explains. “Then you teach them relaxation and breathing skills. Once you get them to be able to self-soothe, relax and be calm, you can help them deal with pictures or scenarios that come up. You help them change the story — what they are telling themselves and what that means — which helps them work through the trauma a little bit at a time.”
Children’s trauma responses and intervention guidelines
Preschool through 2nd grade
Typical trauma responses:
- Believes death is reversible
- Magical thinking
- Intense but brief grief responses
- Worries others will die
- Separation anxiety
- Regressive symptoms
- Fear of the dark
- Reenactment through traumatic play
- Give simple, concrete explanations as needed
- Provide physical closeness
- Allow expression through play
- Read storybooks such as A Terrible Thing Happened, Brave Bart, Don’t Pop Your Cork on Monday
3rd through 6th grade
Typical trauma responses:
- Asks a lot of questions
- Begins to understand that death is permanent
- Worries about own death
- Increased fighting and aggression
- Hyperactivity and inattentiveness
- Withdrawal from friends
- Reenactment though traumatic play
- Give clear, accurate explanations
- Allow expression through art, play or journaling
- Read storybooks
Typical trauma responses:
- Physical symptoms such as headaches and stomachaches
- Wide range of emotions
- More verbal but still needs physical outlet
- Arguments and fighting
- Be accepting of moodiness
- Be supportive and discuss when they are ready
- Groups with structured activities or games
Typical trauma responses:
- Understands death is irreversible but believe it won’t happen to them
- Risk-taking behaviors
- Lack of concentration
- Decline in responsible behavior
- Rebellion at home or school
- Encourage expression of feelings
- Groups with guiding questions and projects
Source: “Systematic Trauma Interventions for Children: A 10-Step Protocol,” by Jennifer Baggerly in Terrorism, Trauma and Tragedies: A Counselor’s Guide to Preparing and Responding, third edition, American Counseling Association Foundation, 201
ACA Traumatology Interest Network
Counselors and counselors-in-training who have an interest in providing counseling services to trauma- or disaster-affected individuals and communities should consider joining the ACA Traumatology Interest Network. Network participants share insights, experiences, new plans and advances in trauma counseling services. For more information on joining the interest network, go to counseling.org/aca-community/aca-groups/interest-networks.
To contact individuals interviewed for this article, email:
- David Lawson at email@example.com
- Jennifer Baggerly at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Catherine Tucker at Catherine.Tucker@indstate.edu
- Jennifer Foster at email@example.com
- Gail Roaten at Gail.Roaten@hsutx.edu
- Elsa Leggett at LeggettE@uhv.edu
- Cynthia Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org
Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at email@example.com.
Letters to the editor: firstname.lastname@example.org