The Psychological Effect Of Child Trafficking On Children

Child trafficking is the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of a child for the purpose of exploitation (What is Child Trafficking). It takes a large toll on the children who are involved mentally as he or she goes through such horror. No matter what the courts say or what the child knew previous before he or she were taken, his or her lives have changed dramatically when reintroduced to life. "Whatever the outcome of the court case, the trafficking experience can have lasting detrimental psychological and physical effects on the victims" (Hepburn and Simon 89).

The children go through so much trauma at such a young age, and for the ones who are able to escape, the perils to which the children are subjected, damage his or her young minds far too much. Mentally, the children are terrified, misunderstood, and overall damaged in his or her ways of life and his or her views on the world. The mental abuse through which the child lived scarred him or her, as he or she were taken from the people he or she knew and loved, only to be shut in and abused for his or her captors' pleasure. The mental impacts range from child to child. However, each will be affected in several ways, and all will need someone to talk and tell his or her story to and to allow himself or herself to be free from their pain. And so one may now explain what exactly the psychological impacts on the children involved in such horrible crimes are.

Stockholm Syndrome

Stockholm syndrome is an emotional attachment to a captor formed by a hostage as a result of continuous stress, dependence, and a need to cooperate for survival ("Stockholm Syndrome"). When a child is taken from what he or she knows, he or she becomes fearful of his or her captors, and as a result, the child need to find a way to survive, and the only way for him or her to accomplish this task is to make a relationship with the captors. The captors will often use threats to have the child become submissive to them, especially in sex trafficking. Threats that usually are implied are abuse to the child or to the child’s family. The use of the threat on the child allows the captor an opening into the child’s thinking; a way to plant a seed of fear. The fear in the child makes the manipulation of him or her much more easy for the captor, as he or she is able to mould him or her into what the captor wants. "When a trafficker forces a victim to obey through fear, intimidation, or threats, this is known as coercion. Some traffickers never physically abuse their victims but use psychological tactics instead" (Farrell 12). The child does not understand why he or she is in the situation with the captor, and the scenario is perfect for the captor as the child begins to feel guilty and ashamed for being there.

The feelings of being ashamed and guilty in the situation on the child’s part means that any kindness or decency shown towards him or her means a great deal. His or her self-esteem and self-respect are virtually non-existent. Thus, when the captor shows affection, the child usually reads into it as he or she has done something right, and so it makes him or her feel loved on a certain level. Isolation is also a key role in Stockholm Syndrome. The captor will usually hold the child away from others to have him or her become accustomed to only trust the captor. Some survivors of sex trafficking have reported threats against himself or herself and his or her family which were used to stop him or her from reaching out to people. Because of the threats, many victims will begin to blame themselves for what has happened and will begin to think no one will believe him or her. Due to this, he or she may become psychologically isolated from others and rely only on his or her captors. It is a natural instinct to personalize oneself with the abuser who is causing pain, emotionally or physically, and welcome the captor into to his or her lives, in order to survive (Jülich).


Self-esteem can be defined as a realistic respect or favorable impression of oneself, or self respect ("Self-Esteem"). Very quickly in child trafficking, a child can have his or her self-esteem lowered. The psychological abuse the child goes through often jeopardizes the emotional well-being of the child. “Depression, hopelessness, guilt, shame, flashbacks, nightmares, loss of confidence, lower self‐esteem, and anxiety are common experiences of trafficking survivors. Survivors of human trafficking may also experience emotional and social withdrawal or isolation” ("Human Trafficking"). Suicidal ideations can occur with trafficking even in the cases of young children who see it as a possible escape from the situation he or she is in. Basic symptoms may stand out such as: mood swings that seem to be an extreme high one day and extreme low the next, feeling as being trapped or hopeless about a situation, change in normal routine such as sleeping pattern or school activity, thinking of doing risky or self-destructive things such as drugs, developing personality changes, or being severely anxious or agitated, especially when discussing these symptoms with an adult or a trusted person. The warning signs are not always as obvious as some would assume, and so it is vital to pay close attention. For the children in captivity, he or she may act out more to try and make a stand to the captor and this is seen as risky and self-destructive (Kaylor 3-5). The causes of a child's suicidal ideations stem from the trauma of being trafficked. Often times, suicidal ideations come from feelings the child cannot cope with as trafficking is a situation overwhelming for all involved.

For a child in a trafficking ring, he or she may feel hopeless, worthless, agitated, socially isolated or lonely. His or her stressful life event would be the trafficking ring they were involved in. Often, the child will not want to discuss these feeling, for he or she feels as though he or she is a burden to others or he or she is being overdramatic about the situation and can handle it himself or herself. For some in a child trafficking ring, underlying psychiatric disorders such as depression, or bipolar disorder may also play a factor. These disorders are both caused by environmental stressors and hereditary genetics and therefore passed from parent to child. If it is genetic, the child has a higher risk of becoming suicidal or having suicidal ideations ("Suicide"). A panic attack is a sudden surge of overwhelming anxiety and fear. If it were to be left untreated, panic attacks can lead to a panic disorder. In some cases, a panic attack can strike out of the blue, without any warning or signs. A panic attack can happen one time or multiple times, but it is more often than not that it will occur more than once. Usually, the panic attack comes when a child is in a situation where he or she feels endangered or unable to escape. For a child going through trafficking, he or she may feel unsafe or scared which leads the brain into believing that it is in danger, and in turn, cause a shortness of breath, heart palpitations, chest pain, sweating, and adrenaline induced fear.

The symptoms are a precursor to a panic attack (Smith and Segal). The exact cause or causes of a panic attack is not known in the medical field yet, but the theory is that panic attacks are caused by genetics, major stresses in life, personalities that are more sensitive to stress or are more prone to have negative emotions, and certain changes in the way the brain functions. There is a working theory that it is the body's natural fight-or-flight response to external and internal extremes. Many of the same reactions occur in fight-or-flight mode as in a panic attack, yet it is not know exactly why a panic attack occurs when there is not a precise danger present. With child trafficking, the fear a child has of knowing a captor is close may bring on a panic attack. The thought of danger alone may be strong enough for one to occur. However, even when the child is recovering from the appalling crime, memories of the stressor can cause a panic attack or a panic disorder, if left untreated ("Panic Attacks").

Mental Disorders

Dissociative Identity Disorder is a severe condition in which two or more distinct identities, or personality states, are present in an individual. The person may also experiences memory loss which is too broad to be explained by ordinary forgetfulness.

For a child who has been through trafficking, he or she may create a separate personality from his or her own to cope with the trauma. It is a way for the child to forget memories which affect how he or she lives from day to day. Though it is not fully understood why some victims develop multiple personalities, it is a working theory that, since many have reported childhood trauma such as physical and sexual abuse, he or she may develop another personality to cope with memories and stressors in life. Usually, a primary identity will carry the individual's given name and is passive, needy, guilty and depressed. When in charge, each personality state, or alter, may act as if it has a distinct history, self-image and identity (Pais). To be able to cope with the harsh realities of trafficking, whether it be sexual or forced labor, some children will create an alternate personality to be able to feel more powerful than his or her previous personality. The more dominant personality will hide the mental scars of the childhood trauma and protect the brain from the knowledge that it ever happened. In turn, when the less dominant, guilty and depressed personality comes out, it means that a stressor has been lifted. The more dominant personality protects the child from any stressors from the outside world. If the child were to be going through talk therapy, the less dominant personality may surface because the dominant personality feels that the child's brain is safe from harm and environmental stressors. As with the panic disorder, dissociative identity disorder may have a connection to the fight-or-flight instincts (American Psychiatric Association).

Depression is a condition of general emotional dejection and withdrawal or sadness that is greater and more prolonged than that warranted by any objective reasoning ("Depression").

A study done in Great Britain found that out of 37 children who had undergone child trafficking, 27 percent of them were depressed (King's College London). Depression is caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors. Children in trafficking are usually isolated from others to keep him or her from disclosing information that the captor does not want shared. Loneliness and isolation are key contributors with depression and lead to serious cases of depression. There is also a serious lack of support from others that children need growing up. With added stressors of the trafficking, the child's depression could potentially worsen into suicidal thoughts or tendencies. Furthermore, the early childhood trauma of trafficking can lead to depression later in life for adults (Smith, Saisan and Segal).

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that is triggered by a terrifying event by either experiencing it or witnessing it. With PTSD, a child may experience flashbacks, nightmares and anxiety, and in addition, uncontrollable thought surrounding the event. For many children who have gone through trafficking, he or she may have difficulty adjusting and coping with the experience. If not treated right away, the symptoms can last for months or even years which could eventually cause the child to not function properly. PTSD usually sets in around the third month of a traumatic event. In some cases, PTSD does not show symptoms for years.

Symptoms are generally grouped into four types which would be intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, or changes in emotional reactions. Generally speaking, most children of child trafficking fall into all categories. Intrusive memories are when the memories are always on a loop, playing in the child's head. Avoidance is when the child would avoid thinking or talking about the horrible events he or she had gone through or avoid places, activities, or people that remind the child of the traumatic event. Negative changes in thinking and mood refers to negative feelings the child has about himself or herself or other people, the inability to experience positive emotions, a lack of interest in activities he or she once enjoyed, memory problems which include not remembering important aspects of the traumatic event, and difficulty maintaining close relationships. Changes in emotional reactions come across as irritability, angry outburst or destructive behavior, trouble concentrating, being easily startled or frightened, and overwhelming guilt or shame ("Post-traumatic Stress Disorder").


Child trafficking does not just take place in foreign countries. Child trafficking takes place in every country and in every corner of the world. Which means that all over the world, children are being sold to the highest bidder to join the sex and forced labor industry. While it does not necessarily mean that he or she will join those two lines of work, it is most likely. Meaning all those children are forced to endure horrible, psychological traumas that could potentially take his or her whole lives to fix or manage. Not all the children will make it to safety. Some children will stay in the trafficking rings his or her whole lives with psychological trauma he or she will be forced to deal with by himself or herself (Williamson, Dutch and Caliber).

03 December 2019
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