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What is childhood trauma?

young child sat on stairs all alone crying with head in hands

Childhood trauma

What is Childhood trauma?

Childhood trauma is often described as serious adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Children may go through a range of experiences that classify as psychological trauma, these might include neglect, abandonment, sexual abuse, and physical abuse, witnessing abuse of a sibling or parent, or having a mentally ill parent. (wikipedia)

Big T and Little T Trauma

When people hear the word ‘trauma’ they usually think of some harrowing event like war or a natural disaster. However trauma is anything that is distressing that falls beyond the scope of normal human experience.

“Trauma is not what happens to you, trauma is what happens inside of you as a result of what happens to you” – Dr Gabor Maté

There are two main categories of trauma commonly referred to as Big “T” and little “t”.

Big “T” traumas are the events commonly associated with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and are likely the events you are naturally inclined to think about when hearing the word trauma such as car accidents, sexual violence, terrorism or life-threatening experiences.

And little “t” traumas are highly distressing events that affect individuals on a personal level but don’t fall into the big “T” category. These are things such as children being spanked, emotional abuse and emotional neglect, bullying, loss of relationship, bullying. People don’t often refer to these events as “traumas” yet they are in fact traumatic.

young child sat on stairs all alone crying with head in hands

“Although little “t” traumas may not meet the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis, these events can be extremely upsetting and cause significant emotional damage, particularly if an individual experiences more than one event or if these traumas occur during important periods of brain development like early childhood and adolescence. Evidence now concludes that repeated exposure to little “t” traumas can cause more emotional harm than exposure to a single big “T” traumatic event.”

Examples of Big T and Little T Traumas by happy me parenting

Examples of Big "T" and little "t" Trauma

Examples of big “T” traumas:

– war, combat, persecution

– serious accidents such as a car crash

– sexual of physical abuse

– domestic abuse

-child abuse, neglect

-witnessing death

-witnessing domestic violence

-death of a loved one

– major surgery, life threatening illnesses.


Examples of little “t” traumas:

– accidents and falls (such as a child falling off a bike and breaking their leg)

-hospital procedures (such as getting tonsils removed).

-a child’s family dog dying

-conflict with parents

-being raised in a household where there is a lot of shouting

-a child being spanked

-being bullied, shamed, mocked, made fun of, humiliated

-having parents with a psyc. diagnosis