Help Us Help Others:

Complex Trauma In Children

“Complex trauma” is not a specific diagnosis in the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual used by mental health practitioners. Yet many specialists use the term to describe children who have suffered from persistently traumatic experiences, and may diagnose it under the “not otherwise specified” category of trauma in the DSM.

What is complex trauma?

Complex trauma is simply a term that refers to the effects of persistently harsh or traumatic environments, typically those that arise out of interpersonal relationships. In other words, it involves people a child knows treating them harshly. It is meant to capture the effects and consequences of circumstances that lie well beyond the classical definition of PTSD, which typically involves a short-term exposure to an isolated traumatic experience.

Examples of complex trauma

Examples of children experiencing complex trauma can be found in children who have been placed in foster care. These kids are exposed to a series of repeated attachment traumas, and are usually treated in substandard ways while in state care. It could also apply to children growing up in dysfunctional and chaotic homes, or children who are repeatedly abused throughout their childhood. It also might apply to children of divorce.

The effects & consequences of complex trauma in children

Children who have endured complex trauma are at a greater risk for a variety of problems:

  • Attachment disorders
  • Stress or anxiety problems
  • Difficulty with self-regulation
  • Increased aggression or violence
  • Emotional disorders
  • Social problems
  • Eating disorders
  • Addiction & substance abuse
  • Se*ual disorders in adulthood
  • Learning disorders
  • Health problems that include heart, metabolic, or immunological disorders
  • Revictimization later in life.


The effects of complex trauma has many things in common with reactive attachment disorder. It arises in situations where attachment injuries are common, and many of the symptoms are the same.

Traumatic reminders or memories can trigger a child into an adverse behavioral response. This can be anything from lashing out in an angry way to withdrawing in fear. The potential triggers can be things like discipline, a perceived abandonment, or experiencing anger directed at them by a caretaker.

Help Us Help Others: