Many people think of childhood as a time of carefree summer days and the love and support of family. In reality, that is not always the case. Every day, countless children experience traumatic events that not only affect their well-being in childhood, but, if unaddressed, will have a profound impact on their adult life as well.
Childhood trauma is defined by the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS) as “negative events that are emotionally painful and that overwhelm a person’s ability to cope.” Another way these events are referenced is Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE). ACEs may include natural disasters, death of a loved one, dysfunctional family situations, or accidents, but the ones that tend to cause the most psychological damage are abuse and neglect. In Oklahoma, one in three children have experienced two or more ACEs before age 17 – the highest rate in the nation – and one in 12 children have a serious emotional disturbance.
Every day more than 16,000 children are abused, molested, belittled, or neglected and five of them will die. Children who are four and under are at the greatest risk for severe injury or death. Substance use and misuse and domestic violence are the most common causes of abuse, but mental illness and anger are also major factors.
When left untreated, the trauma from childhood abuse and neglect can lead to problems in adulthood such as anxiety and depression, relationship and trust issues, substance abuse and addiction, eating disorders, hypervigilance, and sleep problems, which are classic symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), those who had one or more ACEs are at a higher risk for many health issues including mental and substance use disorders as an older adult, which is considered 50 and older.
That is why treatment is so important. At Red River Youth Academy, children and adolescents are given a safe, secure place to talk about their trauma and know they will be listened to and taken seriously. Identifying and understanding anger and anxiety triggers and helping children develop and practice healthy coping skills and prosocial behaviors are an important part of the treatment process. Each child is unique, and so is their plan for treatment.
An individual’s level of resilience is a key factor in overcoming the negative impacts of trauma/adverse childhood experiences and to heal and grow in a healthy way. Resilience is how one adapts to stressful circumstances or how they “bounce back” to deal with the situation. It is not something people are born with, but a learned behavior. According to authors Rick Hanson, Ph.D., and Forrest Hanson in their How to Hardwire Resilience into Your Brain article, every person has the basic need for safety, satisfaction, and connection, and each need is met by an internal strength. Children who have experienced abuse and neglect live in a world where their basic needs are not met, and often do not possess the skills needed to process their emotional pain and ask for what they need in order to “bounce back.”. The American Psychological Association states that a person’s level of resilience is increased when a caring support system is in place. Unfortunately, most children and adolescents who experience a trauma do not have that assistance.
Children who have experienced trauma may exhibit outward signs of distress including irritability, defiance, an unusually high level of anger or rage, aggression toward family members or others, acting out in social situations, mistrust, unreasonable fear, an inability to make friends, withdrawal from family and friends, school problems, unusually strong startle reactions, major changes in eating or sleeping, stomachaches or headaches, difficulty concentrating, suicidal thoughts or actions, and drug or alcohol use.
Children ages 6-12 may be developmentally behind their same-age peers, exhibit fear from being separated from a caregiver, or be afraid of an adult who reminds them of a traumatic incident. They may also show sexual knowledge beyond their age and imitate or recreate a traumatic event during play. Adolescents (ages 13-18) may avoid situations that remind them of a traumatic experience, engage in risky behaviors, develop unhealthy romantic relationships, have panic attacks, or run away.
Being aware of these warning signs is important to identifying and reporting abuse. Reporting a suspicious behavior might be uncomfortable, but most children are unable or too afraid to report the issue on their own. Reporting in many states may be done anonymously. Contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4 A Child (422-4453) or the National Hotline for Missing or Exploited Children is 800-843-5678 for more information or to report a case of abuse. In Oklahoma, call the Oklahoma Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-522-3511.
Since 1983, the month of April has been recognized as Child Abuse Prevention Month. Red River Youth Academy is helping to raise awareness by tying blue ribbons to the trees on campus as a symbol of child abuse prevention; including child abuse and neglect prevention information in residents’ group sessions; hosting a coloring contest for residents to illustrate “my happiest day” as part of the Oklahoma State Department of Health’s Child Abuse Prevention Coloring Challenge; and encouraging staff to participate in Wear Blue Selfie Day on April 6 by sharing photos on social media, tagging Oklahoma Child Abuse Prevention on Facebook, and using the hashtags #pictureabrighterfuture #OKDO1THING. In Norman and other communities across the state, local organizations tie blue ribbons on trees and post signs in high traffic areas.
The more awareness is increased, the better the chances of reducing the number of children experiencing a childhood trauma, improving abuse, neglect, survivors’ resilience, and saving lives.
Red River Youth Academy is located at 3400 Deskin Drive in Norman, Okla., and serves children adolescents experiencing serious emotional/behavioral disorders. At Red River, we believe in hope, second chances, and new beginnings. We are dedicated to providing the most effective care for our residents through programs designed to target specific problems faced by youth with severe emotional and behavioral disorders and to teach them new life skills to enable them to succeed in society. For more information, please call (405) 701-8530 or visit http://www.redriverya.com/.