We tend to think of trauma in children occurring as an isolated incident in which a person did something to cause the trauma. However, a major contributing factor to trauma in children is poverty, and poverty is one reason for the prevalence of trauma in urban settings.
The link between poverty and trauma
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has released Understanding the Impact of Trauma and Urban Poverty on Family Systems: Risks, Resilience and Interventions. It is a compelling white paper which draws alarming conclusions.
It points out that families in urban setting have less resources to help with trauma in their children than their counterparts in more affluent communities. Unfortunately, the number of traumatic events in urban settings are usually more frequent and intense.
The paper¹ summarizes the impact of trauma on family systems as follows:
• Individual distress can range from transient symptoms, to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), to more complex trauma-related disorders, with the potential to disrupt functioning across multiple domains.
• Though some research indicates that supportive adult intimate relationships can be a source of strength in coping with a traumatic experience or dealing with the stress of poverty, the majority focus on difficulties faced by couples who have experienced trauma, such as problems with communication, difficulty expressing emotion, struggles with sexual intimacy, and high rates of hostility, aggression and interpersonal violence.
• Within the parent-child relationship, compromised attachment and mistrust may stem from parental withdrawal/worry and re-enactment of abandonment/betrayal themes.
• Though trauma may not affect the parenting practices of all parents, the experiences of chronic trauma and the stress associated with urban poverty have been associated with decreased parental effectiveness, less warmth, limited understanding of child development and needs, increased use of corporal punishment and harsh discipline, high incidents of neglect, and an overall strategy of reactive parenting.
• Sibling relationships may become negative and conflictual depending on the quality of individual parent-child relationships, differential treatment of siblings by parents, parental management of sibling conflict, individual children’s behavior and emotional regulation and coping skills, and family norms regarding aggression and fairness.
• Research on intergenerational trauma and urban poverty has demonstrated that adults with histories of childhood abuse and exposure to family violence have problems with emotional regulation, aggression, social competence, and interpersonal relationships, leading to functional impairments in parenting which transmit to the next generation.
• The family as a whole is also impacted by chronic conditions of high stress and exposure to multiple traumas, and families often experience chaotic, disorganized lifestyles, inconsistent and/or conflicted relationships, and crisis-oriented coping.
These findings are not surprising, but they do help us realize how conditions of poverty affect the degree of trauma in the lives of children in our country. As we strive to help our children, we need to realize that poverty and trauma go hand-in-hand.
Is a solution possible? Tune into my next post to see what Lakeside and its partners are doing in Philadelphia.
Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network
¹ National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Understanding the Impact of Trauma and Urban Poverty on Family Systems: Risks, Resilience and Interventions.