Speaking About Trauma: Special Considerations for Working with Children with Communication Difficulties

Presenter(s): Elissa Dougherty, Ph.D. and Lindsey Roberts, Ph.D.


Child development occurs within relationships, and trauma can disrupt caregiver-child relationships and make it difficult for children to trust others. Experiencing trauma (such as abuse, neglect, or a natural disaster) during childhood is far too common, impacting over two-thirds of children before their 16th birthday. Children may have a wide range of responses to trauma, including depressive symptoms, anxiety, physical/bodily complaints, difficulty obtaining developmental milestones, emotional problems, academic difficulties, attention problems, sleep disruptions, negative thoughts about themselves, and increased risk-taking behavior. Roughly one out of four (26%) of children under the age of six in the child welfare system have significant delays in overall language development that are two or more standard deviations below the norm. Language delays seriously impact academic success and interpersonal functioning. These delays may stem from a number of sources, including parents who are less verbally interactive with their children, use simplistic language, ask fewer questions, and are less empathetic. Additionally, in neglectful or abusive environments, caregivers may be less sensitive and stimulating, and there may be less access to developmentally appropriate learning materials and activities. Speech, language, and hearing professionals can develop and utilize use a trauma-lens to enhance their effectiveness with children who have experienced trauma. They can provide environments that are predictable, repetitive, and relational in order to help children feel safe, as well as support children through necessary changes. They can also understand how trauma can affect children’s behavior so that they can anticipate trauma triggers and be able to recognize “red-flags” to know when to refer for a trauma assessment with a provider trained in evidence-based treatment.


Elissa Dougherty, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist and Assistant Professor in the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) Department of Psychiatry. Dr. Dougherty’s clinical work is dedicated to delivering evidence-based assessment and interventions for children and adolescents with histories of traumatic life experiences. Dr. Dougherty is a certified Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) therapist and is currently working towards becoming a PCIT Level I (Within Agency) trainer. She is also a certified therapist in Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) and recently began training in Child-Parent Psychotherapy (CPP) in efforts to expand her clinical repertoire to infant mental health. Additionally, Dr. Dougherty is leading the development of an adolescent Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) program at the Child Study Center at UAMS. Furthermore, her research interests are focused on contributing to the scientific literature examining the risk factors associated with child and parent characteristics that independently and together contribute to both the exacerbation and undermining of child psychopathology following traumatic life experiences. Dr. Dougherty earned her doctorate in clinical psychology from Texas Tech University and completed both her doctoral internship and postdoctoral fellowship at UAMS.

Lindsey Roberts, Ph.D. completed her doctoral studies in Clinical Psychology at Bowling Green State University, where she concentrated in child psychology. She completed her doctoral internship and postdoctoral fellow with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences with a clinical focus on providing assessment and therapy for children who have experienced trauma. She works with children of all ages, but specializes in children under 5. She is trained in multiple evidence-based therapies for treating posttraumatic stress symptoms. Her research focuses on parenting, resilience, adolescence, and program evaluation.

Disclosure for Elissa Dougherty

Financial Relationships: None
Non-financial Relationships: None

Disclosure for Lindsey Roberts

Financial Relationships: None
Non-financial Relationships: None 

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