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Can Children Develop Mental Illness from Trauma?

Many people think about mental illness and trauma as separate afflictions with similar side effects. As the stigma for mental illness starts to fade and mental health education becomes more widely available, the connection between the two has become more apparent in research. Understanding the link between mental illness and trauma can help adults and children heal and live more full lives. 

How is mental illness caused?

Mental illness shows up in children in several forms and can likewise be caused in a variety of ways.
  • Genetics: Mental illness is more common in people whose relatives also have mental illnesses. Your genetics can increase your risk of developing mental illness.
  • Environment: Exposure to drugs and alcohol while in the womb can prime children to have mental illnesses as they grow. Similarly, living in an unstable environment or unsafe area can affect children’s mental state.
  • Brain Chemistry: When naturally occurring neurotransmitters are impaired, the function of the brain changes. When your brain chemicals are interrupted or fail to work properly, your nervous system dysregulates and can cause depression and other disorders.
  • Traumatic Experiences: Especially stressful experiences can change your brain function and inhibit your ability to process emotions, putting children at risk for an array of mental illnesses. These experiences can range from abuse, neglect, or assault.

Childhood Trauma

Unfortunately, childhood trauma is a prevalent problem in today’s youth. About two-thirds of children report at least one traumatic event in their life by the age of 16. Some examples of these reported events include: 
  • Psychological, emotional, physical, or sexual abuse from a parent or adult
  • Violence in the community or school environment
  • Child trafficking
  • Terrorism and national disaster
  • Sudden loss of a friend or family member
  • Domestic violence
  • Parental neglect
  • Life-threatening illness or accident
  • Sexual assault
While some forms of trauma are more severe or long-lasting than others, all trauma affects children in some way. Depending on their age, the way children react to trauma can vary.  Preschool aged kids may have separation anxiety, eating problems, or nightmares. Elementary aged kids may have anxious thoughts, struggle with shame, or have trouble sleeping. Teenagers may feel depressed, develop eating disorders or self-harm patterns, or become involved in drug use or premature sexual behaviors. The trauma and subsequent reactions to it can lead to long term mental illness in children. Understanding this connection can help children heal before their struggle with mental illness gets worse in adulthood.

Trauma and the Nervous System

In order to help children overcome traumatic events, it’s important to know how trauma affects the body’s nervous system.

Sympathetic Nervous System

The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activates a fight, flight, or freeze response when it encounters a threat. This happens instinctually and immediately. You’ve probably felt your body enter this “attack mode” occasionally, perhaps when slamming on the breaks in your car or seeing a spider in your house. 

Parasympathetic Nervous System

The parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) works in response to these instincts. It’s job is to calm you down once the threat has been eliminated. Your body uses your hormones to help you relax once it’s sure you’re safe. This happens much slower than the SNS response.

Working Together

For the average person, the SNS and PSNS work together seamlessly, going through stress cycles several times a day. 

Here’s an example: 

You realize you’re late for work and rush to grab your keys and coat to get out of the house in time. Your heart rate increases and adrenaline rushes through you as your SNS reacts to the perceived threat of being late. You may drive more recklessly in this state, adding to the stress your nervous system is feeling.  However, as soon as you get to work, you hang up your coat and get to your computer. Gradually your heart rate starts to even out and your body relaxes. The threat has passed, and your PSNS is now working to appropriately calm you down.

Effects of Trauma

The nervous system reacts very differently after a traumatic event. The SNS can get stuck in “on” mode and the PSNS loses the ability to regulate. When a person is in a fight, flight, or freeze state for an extended time, they can get overstimulated and suffer severe anxiety, panic, anger, hyperactivity, or restlessness. This hyperarousal is stressful to the entire body. Alternatively, trauma can lead to the SNS being stuck in the “off” position. Instead of overstimulation a trauma victim may be unable to feel, resulting in depression, apathy, lethargy, and fatigue. Some people who have experienced trauma can rotate through these “on” and “off” cycles repeatedly. It’s existing in these hyper- and hypo- aroused states for long periods of time that leads to longer-term mental illness. When the nervous system becomes conditioned to extreme states of fear, it can be triggered instantly by small things.  Children who experience trauma are at higher risk for mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, panic disorders, and personality disorders. Trauma is a risk factor that often leads to mental illness.

Dealing with the Effects of Trauma

Luckily there are many strategies that are effective when trying to help a trauma victim calm down from an activated state. Whether they’re dealing with mental illness or an isolated trauma response, here are some ways to regulate the nervous system:
  • Mindful meditation
  • Exercise, yoga, or any intentional movement
  • Spending time outdoors
  • Practiced deep breathing
  • Affirmations of safety and peace
  • Playing with animals
  • Taking a bath or shower
  • Spirituality practice like prayer or chanting
  • Getting a massage
  • Participating in an enjoyable hobby
These strategies all help interrupt the SNS cycle and signal to your body that you are safe and no longer in a threatening situation. They signal to your brain that you are in the here and now, not wherever you felt unsafe before. 


In addition to calming activities, victims of trauma can greatly benefit from several kinds of therapy. These methods work for adults or children who have experienced trauma. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy that encourages patients to relearn thought patterns and take control of their behavior. It often involves learning coping mechanisms and mindfulness.  Trauma Affect Regulation: Guide for Education and Therapy (TARGET) is a strategy specifically created for treating traumatic stress in children ages 7-15. It focuses on 7 steps that help kids take charge of their traumatic responses and use their strengths to gain confidence and overcome their trials. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) is a form of CBT honed in on treatment of individuals with more than one disorder, which can be particularly helpful to children who have experienced chronic traumatic stress. It emphasizes validation, mindfulness, and acceptance of patients’ experiences. Eye Movement and Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapy method that access traumatic memories through a series of stimuli. Reprocessing traumatic events in a safe environment with EMDR is thought to help bring a resolution to the nervous system and leave those difficult memories behind.

Trauma-Informed Activities for Children

When dealing with a child suffering from the effects of trauma, it’s important to approach their care in an informed way to keep them safe. The following strategies can be used by teachers, therapists, parents, or caregivers. 
  1. Maximize Safety: Reassure children verbally of their safety, keep a consistent schedule and routine so they know what to expect, increase your awareness of their triggers.
  2. Manage Overwhelming Emotions: Label emotions with the child, model and teach relaxation skills, try to avoid triggers and remind children of what is happening with their body when they encounter them.
  3. Listen to Their Experiences: Make space for children to talk about their experiences, consider helping the child write out their story and include the good things in their current situation.
  4. Create Enjoyable Activities: Encourage kids to play and enjoy their company, distract them with fun and normal hobbies.
  5. Validate: Stress the normalcy of all feelings including anger, sadness, and guilt, be open to listening to their feelings.
Helping children deal with the effects of their trauma as early as possible is crucial to lowering their risk of developing more complex mental illnesses later on. Working with them while young can have lasting positive results as they grow into adulthood.

Ardu Recovery Center

If you think you or a loved one may be suffering from post-traumatic stress, Ardu Recovery Center is here to help. At Ardu we treat individuals who have fallen into harmful patterns like addiction and drug use. Many of our patients use our holistic approach to heal from past trauma and harm that has led them to needing help.  If you need help, reach out for a dual diagnosis treatment at our recovery center located in Provo, Utah.