THE EFFECTS OF TRAUMATIC STRESS ON EARLY CHILDHOOD DEVELOPMENT

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Shirley Williams is a retired licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) who specialized in treating trauma-based disorders in her professional practice. She graduated with her Masters in Clinical Child Psychology from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville (SIUE) in 1984 and has had decades of experience working with children and adults. She also happens to be my mother-in-law. 🙂

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by Shirley Williams, MS

The air waves have been flooded with reports about the separation of children from their immigrant parent(s) at the southern border of the United States. Many child care professionals (pediatric physicians, neurologists, psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers) have spoken out about the harmful physical, emotional, psychological, and cognitive effects these children could endure due to forced parental/child separation.

Their explanations have been helpful for understanding the possible impact of forced separation, however, an in depth look at developmental outcomes could prove helpful in understanding the extent of harm Trump’s policy has upon these children. (As a disclaimer, the outcomes of behavior discussed in this blog do not include children who go through traumatic stress due to neurological or developmental challenges. Those challenges involve a different look at developmental stages, which I will do in a later blog. However, these children often go through chronic stress due to their individual challenges.)

Developmental Psychologists theorize child development takes a predictable course unless interrupted by internal or external forces, such as: chronic physical illness, prolonged family stress, and environmental tragedies such as war, earth quakes, floods, etc. When any situation occurs outside the realm of normal human experiences, anyone can suffer a stress reaction which will affect development. This is increasingly true of children. The more prolonged the stress, the more likely a child’s development will be stopped or reversed.

Let’s take a look at the various types of development children go through.

According to the famous developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson, Social Learning in development goes through four stages in early childhood. From ages 0-18 months a child learns whether he/she can trust the world. If the child’s needs are met lovingly and consistently (most often) he/she will develop a sense of ‘trust’. If the child’s needs are not met in a consistent fashion, ‘mistrust’ will be the foundation upon which he/she views the world.

EriksonErik Erikson

The next stage goes from 2-4 years of age. Individual ‘Will’ is developing at this stage. How successful is the child in controlling him/herself and the environment. The success of toilet training comes during this stage. The child begins seeing him/herself as an individual. The child learns physical skills like walking, grasping, and sphincter control. If not handled well by caregivers, the child could feel long lasting ‘shame and doubt’ as opposed to ‘autonomy’.

Ages 4-5 – The child learns ‘Purpose’. Initiative versus Guilt. The child continues to build upon successes from the earlier stage and becomes more assertive, learning that he/she can lead others. The child learns to direct play and social interaction and develops an ego quality known as: Purpose. If this stage is not achieved, self doubt with lack of initiative predominates the child’s social activities.

Ages 5-12 – This stage involves the child developing Competence and Industry vs. Inferiority. In this stage, self awareness increases. The child is developing logical reasoning and scientific facts learned in school. The child wants to engage with children his/her own age. Pride develops through the encouragement of caregivers. If this stage is not met, Inferiority develops.

Erikson formulated psychosocial stages throughout life, however, this article focuses on early childhood since these stages may be the most vulnerable considering the forced separation resulting from the Presidential order.

If the infant/child (0-18 months) does not meet the challenges in this stage of development, what

might be observed in his/he behavior? We are currently receiving news reports about how many infants within this age group are crying inconsolably. Other children are sitting expressionless staring off in space. One reporter states how the detention center she visited was alarmingly quiet. There were no older infants crawling or moving around or verbally expressing themselves. If these children’s emotional needs are not met soon many could withdraw into themselves and cease learning how to relate to their environment. Their fixation could thwart their emotional development long term and interrupt other stages of psychosocial development.

A child who is in the second psychosocial stage during the time of separation could stop verbal learning and expression, or could regress to an earlier infant stage of nonverbal expression and become mute. They may return to soiling themselves or stay in diapers for a prolonged time. Bedwetting may continue for years. At a time when the child is beginning to actively and purposely act upon the environment, the child could uncontrollably act out or withdraw into catatonic-like behavior. (Of relevance to this blog site, pediatric catatonia may have a higher degree of expression within the autistic population who have been forcibly separated by Trump’s policies.)

A child who is 4-5 years old and experiencing this toxic separation may not be ready to learn educational skills. His/her interaction with other children will be harshly hindered. The child may over control his/her environment and become aggressive, or may withdrawal into their own world and not learn to give and take actively. Insecurity may be with the child throughout life. Therefore, a sense of who the child is in relation to others and environment is damaged.

Ages 5-12 – If thwarted by forced separation, disruption during this can sabotage the child’s early learning and hinder continued learning. A child widens his/her circle of people of importance at this time and receives positive or negative reinforcement from friends. Educational achievement also adds to or reduces a child’s sense of pride through these endeavors.

These forced separations are creating serious, long lasting problems within this population of migrant children currently being detained and separated from their parents at the US southern borders. The abuse has occurred and will continue affecting these children as long as they are in captivity. The incarceration of these children or organized exploitation is being used to disempower and discriminate against a group of people. And we are purposely producing a group of people who will have long-lasting physical, neurological, emotional, and psychological problems over their life spans.

4 responses to “THE EFFECTS OF TRAUMATIC STRESS ON EARLY CHILDHOOD DEVELOPMENT

  1. I had early stressors and bad nutritions, up until the ages of 3 or so, I could make eye contact and played with other children, I was slowish to speak but my condition was mild seeming, I also had no obsessiveness or very little and seemed normalish up until 5 compared to where I am now. Slowly my eye contact went away, I didn’t respond when called as often, and developed more stereotypies and behaviours. Of course, with a condition such as ASD being developmental it may take aging to unlock symptoms in a certain way, it creeps up gradually, at least it did for me.

    Just because it begins before birth doesn’t mean it happens all at once. Even schizophrenia (the developmental sort, not drug or stress induced) is arguably developmental despite a later onset in one’s late teens.

    A combination of bad nutrition and difficulty growing up (it’s a long story so I’ll spare it). May have pushed me further or at least led to more rather queer symptomaticness I can’t place. I even brought up with my psychiatrist “some of these things, it doesn’t like like ASD, ADHD, depression, and anxiety which I am diagnosed with, it feels like something else lurking there tied to it but abnormal among abnormal” and he said “I don’t know either, we don’t always have the answers”.

    My childhood could have had something to do with it. It could be old fashion psychological stressors or epigenetics wreaking more havoc, call it what you may. I’ve met other people on the spectrum and I don’t fit in or relate to many of them, odd among the odd, and right now something is going on, a constellation of symptoms, I can’t even figure out where from or what it is. All I suppose it could be was childhood, and it’s so bizarre I don’t think people would believe me if i told them the story.

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  2. Hi John, thank you for your response. I do believe as Freud said: “The child is the father to the man.” Many challenges we experience in our adult life many times are linked to childhood. If you believe early childhood stressors are continuing to effect your adult life. I was wondering if you have tried to work through early childhood issues in psychotherapy?

    Shirley Williams, M.S.

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