Child Trauma

What is psychological trauma

Trauma occurs when a child experiences an intense event that threatens or causes harm to his or her emotional and physical well-being.  Not all children experience traumatic stress in response to traumatic events.  Many children are able to adapt to and overcome difficult situations, depending on factors such as age, developmental maturity, prior experiences, social support and other resiliency assets (“Understanding Child Traumatic Stress” brochure from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network).

What can cause child traumatic stress

Trauma can be the result of exposure to a natural disaster such as a hurricane or flood or to events such as war and terrorism. Witnessing or being the victim of violence, serious injury, physical or sexual abuse, or neglect can be traumatic. Accidents or medical procedures can result in trauma, too. Sadly, about one of every four children will experience a traumatic event before the age of 16.

What are the effects of trauma in children?

It is recognized that trauma has a particularly unique and significant impact on children.  Children are not “little adults”; they are more vulnerable to the traumatic effects on development. Child maltreatment and trauma, especially chronic trauma, affects every aspect of a child’s development and functioning including cognitive, emotional, behavioral, social, physical and moral development (View the Kathleen Moroz Report, 2005).  “Trauma affects basic regulatory processes in the brain stem, the limbic brain (emotion, memory, regulation of arousal and affect), the neocortex (perception of self and the world) as well as integrative functioning across various systems in the central nervous system.  Traumatic experiences are stored in the child’s body/mind, and fear, arousal and dissociation associated with the original trauma may continue after the threat of danger and arousal has subsided” (Moroz, 2005).  This can have long-lasting impacts in the individual’s life. 


As seen in the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study (Felitti, Anda, Nordenberg, et al., 1998) multiple adverse childhood experiences such as “abuse, neglect, witnessing domestic violence, or growing up with alcohol or other substance abuse, mental illness, parental discord, or crime in the home” have a “strong, graded relationship to numerous health, social, and behavioral problems throughout a person's lifespan”.  The negative impacts of trauma are seen in adverse child and adult outcomes including reduced school readiness and performance; increased rates of substance abuse; serious health problems; social, emotional, behavioral and mental health problems; and decreased occupational attainment.


Early recognition, intervention and support for children, adolescents and adults who have experienced trauma is imperative to reduce the impact of trauma, build resiliency and increase their functioning in the short and long term.  DMH is committed to the provision of trauma-informed care for all mental health consumers and trauma-specific treatment services for those identified as needing more intensive treatment. 


What does it mean to be Trauma-informed?

Trauma-informed services are designed to deliver mental health (and other social services such as addictions, housing supports, vocational or employment counseling services) in a manner that recognizes the presence of trauma symptoms and acknowledges the role that violence and victimization play in the lives of most consumers of mental health and other social services.  This understanding drives the design of service systems to accommodate the vulnerabilities of trauma survivors, promote resiliency and recovery, and reduce and eliminate practices that have the potential to be traumatizing or re-traumatizing.  Trauma informed services are provided in a way that will facilitate child, youth, and family participation that is appropriate and helpful to the special needs of trauma survivors.


Trauma-informed mental health treatment incorporates... (Jennings, 2004):

  • An appreciation for the high prevalence of traumatic experiences in persons who receive mental health services;
  • A thorough understanding of the profound neurological, biological, psychological and social effects of trauma and violence on the individual; and
  • Care that addresses these effects, is collaborative, supportive and skill-based.

Child Trauma Services in Vermont

The Department of Mental Health adheres to the Agency of Human Services (AHS) Trauma Policy and has developed a draft DMH Trauma Policy to ensure that the mental health treatment system is trauma-informed and offers quality trauma-specific treatment.

The Department of Mental Health is a member of the AHS Child Trauma Workgroup, which was formed in 2004 as a subcommittee of the AHS Trauma Cluster. These groups were formed in response to the recognition that many people obtaining AHS services have multiple or complex experiences of trauma in their history and that this has significant implications on how to provide services that are supportive and effective

The DMH Child, Adolescent and Family Unit, through collaborative planning with the Child Trauma Workgroup, was awarded a three-year grant (FY 2010-20012) for $400,000 per year to become a Community Treatment and Services Center of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) to improve trauma informed care across the community mental health system as well as the larger system of care. This award is supporting the implementation of the promising practice “Attachment, Self Regulation & Competency (ARC): A Framework for Intervention with Complexly Traumatized Youth” into the Vermont Children’s Mental Health system of care. For more information, please visit the Vermont Child Trauma Collaborative page.


Trauma-Informed Systems 




“Behind Closed Doors” Laura Cain, J.D., Managing Attorney of the Adult Mental Health Unit at the Maryland Disability Law Center.  To request a free copy of the film, please contact the law center by email: or by phone 410-727-6352, ext. 0.