Early Childhood Trauma: The Misinterpretation of Misbehavior in Young Children

According to statistics released by the U.S. Department of Education.  During the 2013-14 school year over 6,700 children attending public pre-school were suspended 1 to 4 times from school. 

Yes, that’s right – PRESCHOOLERS suspended from school.  There are various systemic reasons contributing to the suspensions (underpaid, undertrained and overwhelmed providers being just a few) which will not be discussed here. But in the clear majority of the cases, it was the child’s behaviors which were cited as reasons for the suspension.

Ana Gets Suspended from Day Care (a case study)

It’s Tuesday at Kids-R-Us and Ana (age 4) is returning after a long weekend.  She enters day care crying and clinging to her mother.  This is not uncommon.  

Children this age are developmentally programmed to experience anxiety when their primary caregiver leaves them.  But these intense emotions should subside after the child becomes engaged in prosocial and stimulating activities.  

Ana does eventually calm and attempts to engage with the group.  However, before long she is crying in the corner.  She is insisting that another student bumped into her and “gave her a dirty look”.  Now Ana is screaming.  She has wet her pants, she has overturned a chair and is sitting behind it, tucked into a ball and plugging her ears.  

The teacher says, “I’ve had enough.  I’m calling your mom.”  And she does.  This is “Strike 3” for Ana.  Besides being generally inattentive and irritable, she has on two previous occasions had similar “tantrums” which involved spitting at a teacher, throwing toys, crying loudly during nap time and biting another student.  

The teacher is overwhelmed and she and the Director decide to suspend Ana for one week.  

Redefining the Problem

What the teacher and the Director don’t know is that Ana has been a victim of neglect and is witnessing domestic violence in the home.  And she is not alone.  

  • In one study of children Ana’s age, more than half (52.5 %) had experienced a severe stressor (Egger and Angold, 2004).  

In an update for mental health professionals produced by the 2008 presidential task force on PTSD and Trauma in Children and Adolescents the scope of the problem was described this way (and these do not even include physical abuse, neglect, and domestic violence):

  • “Estimated rates of witnessing community violence range from 39% to 85% — and estimated rates of victimization go up to 66%.
  • Rates of youths’ exposure to sexual abuse, another common trauma, are estimated to be 25 to 43%.
  • In 2006, 7.9 million U.S. children received emergency medical care for unintentional injuries (from motor vehicle crashes, falls, fires, dog bites, near drowning, etc.), and more than 400,000 for injuries sustained due to violence.”

What is Early Childhood Trauma?

Early Childhood Trauma: The Misinterpretation of Misbehavior in Young Children. Find out how your role as a social worker can help. WOW – Those are a lot of numbers and trauma rates vary depending on the type of event, the age of the child and the measure for collecting the data.  But what has emerged as a certainty is that many children are experiencing exceedingly stressful life events.  

These early traumas, sometimes called Adverse Childhood Experiences (American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Vol 14, pgs. 245-258. May 1998) are defined as including but not limited to the following:


  • Exposure to Neglect and Parental Depression
  • Exposure to Physical, Sexual and Emotional Abuse
  • Exposure to Domestic Violence
  • Exposure to Natural Disaster
  • Exposure to a Life-Threatening Illness, Accident or Medical Emergency
  • Sudden Loss or Death of a Close Caregiver or Family Member

What Childhood Trauma Looks Like

Just as play is a vehicle for learning in young children, behavior provides invaluable clues into their mental health status and feelings of wellbeing.  Illustrated in the example of 4-year-old Ana, trauma in a child can manifest through many of the following:

  • Difficulty Managing Emotions
  • Clingy or Increasingly Fearful
  • Difficult to Console
  • Aggressive & Impulsive
  • Poor Verbal Skills and Other Developmental Delays
  • Regression in Behaviors Including Enuresis
  • Difficulty Focusing
  • Poor Social Skills (including overreacting)
  • Demanding of Both Positive and Negative Attention

The Good News

Early Childhood Trauma: The Misinterpretation of Misbehavior in Young Children. Find out how your role as a social worker can help. Hooray – there is an upside!  Yes, due to multiple longitudinal studies on the scale of childhood trauma and the best ways to address them.  The new emphasis is being placed on Early Childhood Intervention and new ways of handling disruptive behaviors amongst our earliest of learners.  

There is a trend sweeping throughout the Mental Health Industry to place more emphasis on recognizing trauma in and providing treatment for very young children.  Using the example of Ana provided above, we can begin to imagine the negative, compounding effects of suspending such a child from school – most likely increases the risk of abuse and exposure to more violence.  

Luckily as more educators and professionals are better understanding the signs and symptoms of childhood trauma – we can begin to implement kinder and more effective responses to decrease traumatic symptoms and address the problems and misperceptions of acting out behaviors.  Now you too have an idea of what to look for!


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“Childhood and Trauma: Update for Mental Health Professionals.” APA Presidential Taskforce on Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Trauma in Children and Adolescents.  Journal of American Psychological Association. August, 2008.

Egger, H., & Angold, A. (2004). Stressful life events and PTSD in preschool children. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, Washington, DC.)

“Relationships of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of The Leading Causes of Death in Adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study.”  American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Vol 14, pgs. 245-258. May 1998.

U.S. Department of Education. Office of Civil Rights. “2013-2014 Civil Rights Data Collection: A First Look.”  June 7, 2016.  

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