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ACE Risk Factor #6: Trauma

On This Page:

  • Disasters (9/11, Katrina, COVID-19, School Shooting)
  • Historical/Parental
  • Divorce; Death of family member/close friend/pet
  • Prison; Foster Care; Failed Adoption
  • Experienced a school shooting

Disasters (9/11, Katrina, COVID-19, School Shooting)

Situations or events that create a serious disruption in the functioning of a community and overwhelm its capacity to deal with the widespread loss and destruction created by the event are called disasters. Disasters can be man-made (9/11,  Sandy Hook), natural (Katrina, Harvey, fires), health (COVID-19/Coronavirus), or technological (Chemical Spills, Power Outages). On average, at least one disaster occurs everyday around  the world Overstreet (2011).

After a natural disaster, 30-90% of affected children exhibit signs of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression. The psychological response of a young child greatly depends on the reactions of their caregivers; new mental problems could directly correlate with new mental problems of their mother. Children lack the language necessary to express helplessness or fear and instead will show their distress in behavioral changes, such as: loss of developmental skills (toileting, speech), sleep problems, and excessive clinginess. Older children will show signs of distress by decreased academic performance, increased inattention, aggressive behaviors, or physical complaints (head/stomach aches).

After a disaster, adults may be too busy dealing with their own lose of job or home to attend to the children's needs. Children may be more concerned with the experience of losing a loved one, close friend, or family pet as a result of a disaster and may pay no attention to the fact their house was swept away in the aftermath flooding. Family members may experience a prolonged health condition (heart disease, diabetic), resulting in death a few months to a year after the disaster. Loss may continue due to the impact of a disaster on the community and its available resources.

Disasters cause a disruption in the normal routine of children and may result in a social disconnect from needed support networks, such as:

  • Peer Groups
  • Extended Family
  • Schools
  • Child Care Centers


25-50% of all children worldwide are affected by child maltreatment, leading to ongoing impacts on physical, social, and emotional health. Parents may experience trauma triggers or fear responses in the first two years (perinatal period) of caring for their distressed child. The long-term effects could lead to intergenerational cycles of trauma, due to the parent's failure to nurture a lasting relationship with the child Chamberlain (2019).

Outcomes of child maltreatment include:

  • Smoking
  • Eating Disorders
  • Unplanned/Teen Pregnancy
  • Depression/Stress/PTSD
  • Substance Use
  • Domestic Violence
  • Poor Parenting Practices
  • Values Corporal Punishment
  • Adverse Birth Outcomes
  • Legal Problems
  • Physical Problems
  • Psychological Problems
  • Poor Social Functioning
  • Poor Relationships
  • Sleep Problems
  • Overeating/working
ACE Risk Factor #6: Trauma

Resilience does not typically develop from a traumatic childhood. The transition to parenthood can also be a time of healing and growth. By restoring a sense of safety through nurturing, supportive relationships.

This transformation positively reinforces elements of healing by replacing the "vicious cycle" with a "virtuous cycle".

Factors that protect against the cycle are:

  • Financial Stability
  • Resource Access
  • Partner Warmth
  • Practicing Self-Care
  • Parent Training
  • Positive Attitude
  • Secure Attachment
  • Resilience
  • Attending Counseling
  • Meditation
  • Volunteering
  • Exercise
  • Parent Satisfaction
  • Less Harsh Parenting

Three phases of healing include:

Understanding the experience of trauma and "meaning making"

  • Thinking/talking through past trauma for prevention

Acting on conscious strategies to address the effects of trauma

  • Leaving violent partner for child's safety

Commitment to not pass on the effects of trauma

  • Determination to parent differently

Death of Family Member/Close Friend/Pet/Marriage

Death of a family member can include: parents, siblings, grandparents, etc. Attachment theory suggests that humans have a biosocial urge to seek a feeling of security through connection with others in the face of a challenging outside world environment Marks (2007). In the event of a parental death, the lineage placement (or generational transition/leadership) and its accompanying responsibilities/challenges shift as a result. For example, in the absence of a father, the male (most times the eldest, but not always) will feel obligated to step up and take care of his sisters/siblings. In the absence of a mother, the female (usually the eldest) will take on the responsibility of caregiver to the younger siblings and sometimes the grieving father.

A large portion of literature analyzes child mortality and policy interventions, but few shine a spotlight on the effects of child mortality on other family members. Sibling death can impact the remaining children's development and healthy transition into adulthood. Parents view the death of a child as a profound loss that may result in marital problems, depression, health problems, and neglect of the surviving children Fletcher (2013).

Due to the perception of a close friend/pet (or non-kinship) being of lower status than blood relatives, the experience of grieving the death of a friend/pet receives less social support. Physical and emotional support is needed for up to four years after the death. Responses are influenced by:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Personality (Altruistic)
  • Mental Health

The death of a marriage (or divorce) can be devastating for the entire family, parents, children, (sometimes grandparents/other relatives), the economy, and society. Many adults feel that open cohabitation relationships are more conducive to personal development. If a relationship does not provide personal happiness, then parents believe that divorce or separation is best and will not be detrimental to the function of the family. Before no-fault divorce laws, only the most dysfunctional marriages ended in divorce because legal procedures were difficult and expensive Anderson (2014).

As a result of a divorce, children may:

  • Lose time with each parent - Grief, Anger, Shared Visits
  • Lose economic security - 25-50% income loss
  • Lose emotional security - Weakened family relationships
  • Social/Psychological maturity - Anxiety, depression
  • Change outlook on sexual behavior - Less trust/earlier sex
  • Lose religious faith/practice - More likely to abandon
  • Lose cognitive/academic stimulation - Failing a grade
  • Be less physically healthy
  • Higher Emotional Distress Risk - Violence, neglect

Prison; Foster Care; Failed Adoption

And I believe the children of adoption suffer the trauma of separation from the biological mother; placement in foster homes or orphanages; separation again if finally adopted – all disruptions that certainly could and most likely do, contribute to the high number of troubled teen and adult adoptees with a myriad of mental & physical illnesses in higher numbers than their age-peers.

Failed adoption

  • You were adopted but returned to foster care
  • " " but unwanted by family; one way in public-different behind closed days
  • " " but parents were alcoholics, abusive-sexually, physically, emotionally

Birth order - Groomed selection

Older child leaves - Younger child remember suffering more

Older child is selected - Younger children never approached - different memory

Absent Parents - Unknown foster/adopted/hush child/died-raised by grandparents

Anniversary anxiety - death of parent, day of accident/event

Lasting Effects of Trauma


Anderson J. (2014). The impact of family structure on the health of children: Effects of divorce. The Linacre quarterly, 81(4), 378–387.

Chamberlain, C., Gee, G., Harfield, S., Campbell, S., Brennan, S., Clark, Y., Mensah, F., Arabena, K., Herrman, H., Brown, S., & ‘Healing the Past by Nurturing the Future’ group. (2019). Parenting after a history of childhood maltreatment: A scoping review and map of evidence in the perinatal period. PloS one, 14(3), e0213460.

Fletcher, J., Mailick, M., Song, J., & Wolfe, B. (2013). A sibling death in the family: common and consequential. Demography, 50(3), 803–826.

Liu, W-M., Forbat, L., Anderson, K. (2019). Death of a close friend:Shortand long-term impacts on physical, psychological and social well-being. PLoSONE 14 (4):e0214838.

Marks, N. F., Jun, H., & Song, J. (2007). Death of Parents and Adult Psychological and Physical Well-Being: A Prospective U.S. National Study. Journal of family issues, 28(12), 1611–1638.

Overstreet. S., Salloum, A., Burch, B., & West, J. (2011). Challenges Associated with Childhood Exposure to Severe Natural Disasters: Research Review and Clinical Implications, Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma, 4(1), 52-68. DOI:

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