Nearly Half of Children in U.S. Exposed to Emotional Trauma

Almost 50 percent of all American children between the ages of 6 and 17 are exposed to at least one event/situation capable of triggering emotional trauma that may last into adulthood, according to recent study findings from an American research team. Teenagers and young children who undergo emotional trauma can experience a range of notably negative consequences, including ongoing changes in physical and mental health. In a study published in December 2014 in the journal Health Affairs, researchers from four U.S. institutions used data from a nationwide project called the National Survey of Children’s Health to calculate how often American adolescents and children encounter situations or events known to be linked to the onset of emotional trauma. These researchers also looked at some of the most likely outcomes of trauma exposure in adolescents and children.

Children and Emotional Trauma

Teens and younger children can develop traumatic emotional reactions in the aftermath of a wide variety of circumstances. Specific potential predictors of emotional trauma in people in this age range include acts of physical abuse, acts of sexual abuse, acts of parental neglect, the death of a parent or other close relative or loved one, substance use by a parent or caregiver, mental illness in a parent or caregiver, exposure to intimate partner violence (i.e., domestic violence), serious socioeconomic deprivation, exposure to parental divorce or separation, residence in a neighborhood with a high rate of violence, exposure to a natural disaster and exposure to systemic prejudice. Emotional trauma can manifest in a number of ways in an adolescent or younger child. Potential manifestations include the onset of serious conduct problems, a reduced ability to think clearly or otherwise use important higher-level mental skills, a reduced ability to express or control various emotional states, impaired or altered growth and development, altered and unpredictable responses to the information coming in through any one of the five senses, a diminished ability to form healthy relationships, a reduced ability to develop a life-sustaining sense of self and a tendency toward unusually detached or dissociated mental/emotional reactions. In addition, teens and younger children affected by emotional trauma have higher adult rates for certain forms of chronic illness (including heart problems), as well as higher chances of falling into risky patterns of adult behavior.

National Survey of Children’s Health

The National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH) is conducted by the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative, an organization supported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and several other federal agencies. The survey aims to track the broad array of variables that can increase or decrease the mental and physical health of American teenagers and younger children. Included among these variables are the events and situations known to increase the odds of experiencing emotional trauma. The latest available version of the NSCH covers the years 2011 and 2012.

How Often Are American Children Exposed?

In the study published in Health Affairs, researchers from the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative, Johns Hopkins University, the University of California San Francisco and the University of California Los Angeles used data from the 2011-2012 version of the National Survey of Children’s Health to estimate how often American children between the ages of 6 and 17 are exposed to circumstances linked to emotional trauma. The researchers undertook their work, in part, because current evidence shows that emotionally traumatized children often continue to experience related problems as adults. A total of 95,677 teens and younger children submitted information for the project. The researchers concluded that nearly 50 percent of American children in the targeted age range experience at least one out of nine specific events/situations known for their ability to trigger emotional trauma. In addition, between 22 percent and 23 percent of these children experience two or more trauma-generating events or situations. The researchers identified consequences of exposure to at least two potential sources of emotional trauma that include heightened chances of failing a grade in school, heightened chances of developing an autism spectrum disorder, heightened chances of developing attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), heightened chances of becoming obese and heightened chances of developing asthma. The study’s authors found that teens and children who learn how to improve their stress resistance have substantially smaller odds of experiencing problems in school after exposure to two or more sources of emotional trauma. This effect is specifically noted for adolescents and younger children who regularly receive medical care for ongoing health problems.

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