Childhood trauma is one of the oldest and most central themes in psychopathology. Otto Rank (1884-1939), one of the first psychoanalysts, even believed that being born was a child's first traumatic experience. The theory was met with much criticism at the time, but today, Rank’s point that the body ‘remembers’ violent sensations, is recognised as an important aspect of the crisis psychological reactions that follow a trauma.
Like adults, children can be exposed to random and tragic events such as car accidents, natural disasters, deaths or life-threatening illnesses. Childhood is a particularly vulnerable period; children’s defenselessness and dependence on adults can be abused and exploited. We warn our children not to talk to strangers because we fear paedophilia and kidnapping, but unfortunately, children are often traumatised behind the four walls of their home, by violent- or sexual abuse, neglect, or by witnessing violence between the parents.
Research on children and trauma
In recent years, the Danish Center for Psychotraumatology has conducted a lot of new research in the field of children and adolescents, and this research has taken shape within four tracks.
The first track focuses on tools for measuring trauma reactions in children and adolescents. Even the smallest children can be traumatised and when this happens, it is important to intervene as soon as possible to avoid or at least reduce the consequences for the child later in life. Children express their symptoms in different ways than adults and therefore it is necessary to have measurement tools that are adapted to the way children of different ages express themselves, so that children in need of treatment can be identified as early as possible. For these reasons, the Danish Center for Psychotraumatology has conducted several studies assessing the validity and accuracy of tools already available abroad, such as the American "Darryl" test, and based on these studies, a corresponding Danish test, Thomas, has been developed that can be used down to the age of 6. In addition, some research is also aimed at developing a tool that can measure trauma reactions in even younger children, as young as 4 years old.
In 2008, the Danish Center for Social Science Research conducted a cross-sectional study of 4718 young adults aged 24, born in 1984. 2980 participated in a structured interview that explored the participant's experiences of childhood abuse and neglect. Data from this study has fuelled a great deal of research into the consequences of childhood maltreatment and the factors that help define the consequences of these experiences. Among other things, the center has used this large amount of data to examine associations between the different types of childhood maltreatment, PTSD, school-related problems, and alcohol and drug abuse later in life. The purpose of these studies is to predict which children are most at risk for different problems based on the type of neglect or abuse they have experienced. Ultimately, this can be used to specify the intervention for vulnerable children and young people and ensure that they get the right help.
In recent years, the center has conducted a number of studies on young 8th graders in 10 different countries to investigate the prevalence of PTSD and potentially traumatising experiences, as well as a number of protective and risk factors that help determine whether these experiences trigger harmful trauma reactions such as PTSD. Participants in these studies completed questions about their demographics, as well as various questionnaires such as the HTQ (The Harvard Trauma Questionaire), TSC (The Trauma Symptom Checklist) and CSQ (The Coping Style Questionaire). These studies have provided a comparative basis for assessing the prevalence of trauma and PTSD among young people from different countries both within and outside of Europe. They have also provided important information about protective and risk factors related to the development of PTSD after a traumatic experience, which can be used to specify and improve interventions for these young people in each country.
The last track deals with traumatisation and substance abuse among young people, and this research is based on data from a study conducted by the Centre for Alcohol and Drug Research at Aarhus University in 2012. Using a series of online questionnaires, the center collected information about traumatising experiences, PTSD symptoms, substance abuse habits, demographic factors and psychological factors such as attachment and mental disorders from 1988 participants between the ages of 15 and 18. The Danish Center for Psychotraumatology has used this large amount of data to investigate the relationship between substance abuse and PTSD, among other things.
The studies within these four tracks can be found in the literature box in the right-hand corner, where you can find an overview of all the research published by the Danish Center for Psychotraumatology in the field of children and young people.