Trauma isn't ONE THING. It's sometimes hard to define, but here's SAMHSA's definition (lots of resources on that website, by the way--if you're going to traumatize a character, do your research!):
Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual's functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.You see here that you need an event that a person experiences in a certain way, but that also has lasting effects. That's the core of it, but this can take so many different shapes!
- car accident
- physical injury or accident
- natural disaster
- physical or sexual assault
We'll talk about treatment in a later post, but professionals agree that single event trauma is often "simpler" to treat than other kinds of trauma, because the individual can focus on grieving and integrating one event. That doesn't mean this type of trauma is no big deal--it can be crippling. But man, are there some extremely effective treatments that work particularly well for individuals who've experienced it.
Books that deal with single incident trauma include Hate List by Jennifer Brown, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, and Willow by Julia Hoban. I would say that the majority of YA books dealing with trauma that I've read involve single event trauma.
- domestic violence
- physical and sexual abuse
With this type of trauma, there are periods of respite in between, and sometimes the surrounding environment isn't utterly toxic, but when things explode, they have a "snowball" or cumulative effect. The traumatic events aren't isolated--they wear a person down.
Books that deal with episodic trauma include The Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt and The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins (Catching Fire is where the author really begins to show the aftereffects of trauma, but she also deepens the trauma with additional traumatic events). Lela, the main character in Sanctum, has also experienced episodic trauma, though it could be argued that her background involves significant developmental trauma as well (see below).
- refugee/forced displacement/warzone
- child neglect and deprivation
Chronic trauma, and particularly early and ongoing child neglect and deprivation, is much more complicated to treat because of the frequency of negative events and the pervasive badness of the environment. Developmental trauma, sometimes referred to as "complex trauma," is also harder to diagnose, because sometimes there is no single event that could be identified as traumatic. Rather, sometimes the entire environment is the issue! This type of trauma gets a post all to itself. As a child psychologist, I think about, talk about, and deal with this type of trauma (in varying degrees of severity) A LOT.
Books that deal with chronic trauma include Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott and Nobody But Us by Kristin Halbrook.
If you're writing about trauma, feel free to share the type of trauma your character has experienced, and how you're thinking about his/her reaction to it. Also, please feel to recommend excellent books that deal with different types of trauma in an authentic manner!
On Monday, we'll move on to a discussion of factors that make traumatic events more likely to cause PTSD symptoms in those who experience them.