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Trauma can mean so many things to different people, and there’s a lot of confusion out there about just what qualifies as a traumatic experience. Some use the word when describing children who have had their throats slit by an intruder who murders the rest of their family, whereas others use it to refer to a non-violent touch that happens to violate society’s social norms. Over the years the definition of trauma has been heavily watered down, to the point where some people even use the word “trauma” to describe everyday experiences that make someone feel bad. Even trauma specialists are divided on its definition.

The definition of child trauma

Psychiatry’s diagnostic manual defines a traumatic experience as something outside the norm of what humans usually encounter. Under standard definitions, a trauma is something that…

  • Poses a life/death risk or the threat of serious bodily harm
  • Is so acutely painful (physically or emotionally) that it overwhelms a child’s ability to cope
  • Is abrupt and unexpected
  • Significantly alters the course of one’s life.

Some psychologists have also defined trauma as being something that challenges a person’s bedrock assumptions:

  • The world is fair and just
  • People are good and caring
  • Things will work out in the end
  • I am generally safe and secure
  • Adults will protect me.

Examples of childhood trauma

Here are some examples of childhood events that would fit the standard definition of trauma:

  • Being shot or otherwise victimized by a violent attack
  • Child ripe or violent sexual abuse
  • Extreme physical abuse
  • Severe car accidents
  • Removal by CPS or abrupt parental separation
  • Witnessing an extreme act of violence
  • Exposure to domestic violence
  • Traumatic injuries
  • Living through a natural disaster, such as a tornado or severe earthquake
  • Witnessing a parent’s arrest

Here are some things that normally wouldn’t fit the standard definition of trauma:

  • Divorce
  • Non-violent child molestation
  • Mild physical abuse (slapping, spanking, biting, etc.)
  • Bullying
  • Verbal or emotional abuse
  • Family problems
  • Living with addiction or an alcoholic parent

These things may be upsetting in their own right, but they usually don’t rise to the intensity of trauma. Traumatic events…

  • Are sudden, abrupt and shocking
  • Create acute fear and distress
  • Usually involve an overtly bad actor (or an inherently violent natural experience)
  • Are so terrifying, disruptive or violent they temporarily overwhelm a person’s ability to cope
  • Can leave behind a scarring memory that hampers a person’s ability to function
  • Are rare and isolated events that typically happen once and don’t recur?

Non-traumatic difficult events…

  • Are persistent and recurring, and therefore predictable
  • Are more subtle and complicated in nature
  • Often involve interpersonal dynamics and social injuries
  • Pain is usually incidental as opposed to intentional
  • Result in chronic, persistent stress
  • Create ongoing experiences that result in bad feelings or environments that wear a person down
  • Invoke shame, guilt or sadness
  • Do much of their harm through negative ideas that attack a person’s sense of self.

While each situation can cause distress, they create this distress in very different ways. Traumas cause harm by being so extreme they can uproot one’s existence. They are isolated experiences that leave a lingering psychological effect. The traumatic memory intrudes upon the victim’s life in the form of flashbacks and PTSD symptoms, making it difficult to function as they had before.

Ordinary hardships and difficult experiences (divorce, family turmoil, parental problems, etc.) cause harm by making life more stressful and/or attacking core tenets of a child’s wellbeing. They result in stressors that are persistent and recurring, creating an ongoing hardship in a child’s life.

Of course, there can be quite a bit of overlap between the two categories, which is precisely why the definition of trauma is met with so much debate. And sometimes both situations are present at the same time: A trauma might lead to a persistent hardship, such as when a traumatic natural disaster renders a family homeless and leads to added stress that carries on for years. But generally speaking, they are two very different things. Think of trauma as the one-off event that knocks you upside the head and leaves you feeling loopy. Difficult experiences are more like the gut punch that happen day after day and steadily wear you down.

Beyond the labels

Just because something isn’t defined as a trauma that doesn’t mean it can’t be harmful. Not all difficult experiences qualify as traumas, and not all traumas are extremely difficult experiences. The obsession with the “trauma” label in our society is a social phenomenon that doesn’t accurately reflect reality.

In fact, studies have consistently found that “non-traumatic” interpersonal events such as a breakup, a painful divorce, enduring verbal or emotional abuse, being bullied, or experiencing more typical hardship in life can actually induce more “PTSD symptoms” than actual traumas do. (______) Having a depressed or otherwise mentally ill parent can disrupt a child’s life as much as any actual experience can, and when researchers studied sexual abuse in relation to family variables, they discovered that having a narcissistic parent was a better predictor of harm than molestation was, even in situations involving incest. (Moor, 1993) It’s the emotional variables of the experience that matter, not the labels we choose to define it.

A child may be involved in a serious car accident that fits the standard definition of trauma and emerge just fine, whereas a child who experiences the slow, steady, predictable disintegration of their family that accompanies his parent’s divorce can be completely shattered and devastated by it. A child from a loving home who is shot and wounded in a violent attack is still far better off than a child from an unloving home who struggles with an attachment disorder. The label is just a label, and does not accurately foretell the severity of the situation.

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