National Center for Effective Mental Halth Consultation

Defining Trauma

The definition of trauma does not name types of trauma or traumatic events. Instead it describes the experience of trauma and highlights the factors that influence the perception of trauma.

Trauma is the unique individual experience of an event or enduring conditions in which the individual's ability to integrate his/her emotional experience is overwhelmed and the individual experiences (either objectively or subjectively) a threat to his/her life, bodily integrity, or that of a caregiver or family (Saakvitne, K. et al, 2000).

The Early Trauma Treatment Network, a consortium of four sites across the country, funded through the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), who work with children under the age of six, has put forward their definition of trauma that focuses on the developmental considerations of very young children.

(Trauma is) an exceptional experience in which powerful and dangerous stimuli overwhelm the child's capacity to regulate emotions. (Early Trauma Treatment Network, ND)

By either definition, the perception of or subjective appraisal of danger or trauma varies by age and stage of development. For young children under the age of four, one of the most potent trauma variable can be witnessing the threat to a caregiver (Scheeringa and Zeanah, 2001).

(Adapted from Blumenfeld, et al, 2010, used with permission)






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Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development National Center for Effective Mental Health Consultation