What do we mean by abuse, neglect and trauma?

There is no such thing as a child not noticing when something bad happens or when something that is needed isn’t there. Even the youngest child can feel overwhelmed and can be traumatized. The definitions we use in this resource are general rather than specific – “something” – and emphasize the effect rather than focusing on details of an incident.

Adults notice when things aren’t right, but they don’t always pay attention to the signals.

Abuse is something that happens that shouldn’t happen.

Neglect is something that should happen that doesn’t happen.

Abuse and neglect are opposite life events, but either can lead to trauma. Neglect is more difficult to identify than abuse because it is a lack of something, a negative space.

Trauma is an experience or situation that overwhelms the individual’s readily available adaptive resources. It demands mobilization of survival instincts, and affects biology, mental functioning, and emotional states. It is a “do or die” situation from the perspective of the person experiencing it.

The development of trauma is age- and resource-dependent: What is overwhelming for a young child might not be traumatic for a teenager or adult. Trauma is not rare, nor is it always recognized as trauma at the time it occurs. What defines trauma is the over- whelming nature of the experience, not the drama.

NEXT:  Children experience trauma with the brain they have at the time

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