What is childhood trauma?
A child can become traumatised if they are exposed to events or environments that are particularly frightening, dangerous, life-threatening, disturbing or violent.
Such experiences may trigger feelings of traumatic stress which can undermine a child’s sense of safety and stability and impact the way they think and behave.
The child may continue to be affected long after the event, and may suffer:
- strong emotions such as terror, helplessness and fear
- physiological problems like heart palpitations, vomiting or difficulty controlling their bladder or bowel
Children can be affected by many different types of trauma, including:
- community violence
- complex trauma
- natural disasters
- intimate partner violence
- physical abuse
- medical trauma
- refugee trauma
- sexual abuse
- terrorism and violence
- traumatic grief
In this article, you can find tips on how to help your child in the aftermath of a traumatic event.
Some children are more at risk of suffering from traumatic stress than others. Learn to recognise unhealthy ways of coping with trauma so you can get your child professional support if necessary.
What are the symptoms of childhood trauma?
The way a child responds to a traumatic event can depend on numerous factors, but as a general guideline (based on age), look out for the following symptoms.
Children aged 0-5 may:
- exhibit signs of fear
- regress to behaviours typical of younger children (e.g. thumb sucking or bedwetting)
- cling excessively to their parent or caregiver
- scream, cry or whimper
- move aimlessly
- stop moving altogether
Children aged 6-11 may:
- lose interest in activities they previously enjoyed
- withdraw from friends and family
- struggle with school and homework
- adopt disruptive behaviours
- become irritable or angry
- experience guilt or feel depressed about the traumatic event
- report symptoms of physical problems
Adolescents aged 12-17 may:
- become disruptive, destructive or disrespectful
- lose interest in hobbies or activities
- misuse drugs or alcohol
- experience guilt, depression or feelings of isolation
- have thoughts of suicide
- try to avoid anything that reminds them of the traumatic event
- develop sleeping problems or nightmares relating to the event
- report symptoms of physical problems
- have flashbacks of the event
Sometimes a child will experience a delayed reaction to a trauma, even if they seem fine immediately afterwards. This can happen days, weeks or months later.
A lack of reaction may mean a child is coping well, but you should still look out for any worrying symptoms in the months that follow.
When to worry about your child’s trauma
It is normal for your child to experience negative feelings after a traumatic event, but these should improve over time. If a child is suffering more seriously from trauma, the symptoms may persist and can start to interfere with their daily functioning. In this circumstance, you may want to seek help from a mental health professional. If you are concerned that your child may be a victim of abuse, it is important to seek help urgently.
Also consider seeking professional help for your child if they are:
- struggling with school
- having recurrent memories, nightmares, or flashbacks of a traumatic event
- complaining of problems like headaches or stomach pains
- having trouble sleeping
- finding it more difficult to interact with loved ones
- experiencing thoughts of suicide
- increasingly avoiding any reminders of the trauma
After the trauma
The consequences of a traumatic event can be just as difficult for a child as the immediate crisis. They may have to endure many changes like adjusting to life with a disability or moving to a new house or school.
Additionally, reminders of the trauma may trigger a strong emotional reaction. Even the anniversary of the event may be enough to evoke feelings of sadness or fear. Learning to recognise a child’s reaction to trauma can help you understand why their mood and behaviour may change in its aftermath.
Addressing the effects of a traumatic event in a positive and constructive manner can be vital to a child's recovery.
Factors that increase the risk of trauma
There are many factors which can determine whether or not a child is traumatised by an event. For example, a child may be more susceptible if they have an existing history of trauma. Other factors that can have an impact include:
- how close the child was to the event (e.g. if they were present at the event or watched it on television)
- the seriousness of the event (e.g. how badly the victim was hurt)
- the reaction of their family (e.g. if their parents or careers believed they were telling the truth)
Factors that help prevent trauma
‘Protective factors’ are traits or resources possessed by a child or their support network that better equip them for dealing with negative experiences. Positive adult role models, a supportive community, and healthy self-esteem are examples of protective factors.
Having many protective factors may mean a child is able to recover from traumatic circumstances more successfully.
Tips for helping a child cope with trauma
Prevent exposure to disturbing content
A child can become traumatised if they are bombarded by distressing media content (like news reports or social media updates), particularly if they were involved in a tragedy. Limit your child’s exposure by utilising parental controls on any devices they use.
You can always separate media content from your child if you notice they are troubled by it, even if it isn’t directly related to a traumatising event.
Interact with your child
The time you spend with your child can play an important role in their recovery. You can:
- Let them know negative emotions are normal. Tell them that it is perfectly normal to be upset by a tragedy, but that they may feel better in time. Don’t expect your child to respond the same way that you do; everyone deals with trauma in their own way.
- Listen to them. They may want to talk about the crisis, their feelings or their worries (don’t force them to talk if they are not ready). Always take their fears and concerns seriously, even if they don’t seem directly related to the event. Help them feel heard, accepted, and understood.
- Show them you care. Tell them that you are interested in how they are doing.
- Clarify the event. You can explain the event to your child in an age-appropriate manner. Be as honest as possible, but try not to mention any upsetting details.
- Reassure them that it was not their fault. Children sometimes feel guilty after a tragedy. Make sure they know they are not to blame.
- Get the family involved. Let everyone talk and support one another openly so no one feels left out.
- Help them feel safe. Children have a tendency to personalise the world around them. They may feel threatened by a crisis even if it is far away. You can talk to them and help them place situations in a wider context.
- Try to be truthful. Always tell your child the truth to the best of your ability, but try and avoid any upsetting details. Be honest if you don’t know the answer to a question. Additionally, don’t make any promises you can’t keep.
Your child may experience changes in thinking, mood, and behaviour due to trauma. The way you respond can impact their recovery.
- Don’t be critical of changes in behaviour. Trauma can cause an increase in irritability or tantrums, or the return of behaviours typical of a younger age, like bedwetting. Understand these may be symptoms of their distress.
- Help your child feel in control. A tragedy can damage a child’s sense of stability. Children who feel powerless are more likely to be negatively affected by trauma. Allowing them to make small decisions, like picking which snack they want, can give them a greater sense of control.
- Don’t be too overprotective. This can be difficult following a traumatic experience, but it can encourage your child to feel safer.
- Spend plenty of time with them. Try to give them more attention than usual, particularly at times they may be more stressed (e.g. at bedtime).
Clear family roles and a regular routine can give a child a sense of normality. To achieve this:
- Don’t give your child more responsibilities. Try and avoid putting them in a position where a parent or caregiver is depending on them for emotional support.
- Keep the same daily routine. Knowing what to expect each day can be comforting when recovering from trauma. Try not to enforce any new rules until they have had time to recover.
- Practice a healthy lifestyle. Make sure your child eats and gets enough sleep and exercise. Don’t try to force your child to eat regular meals if they have lost their appetite. Give them lots of opportunities to take part in fun activities (including sports) and to play with their friends.
- Make time for fun. Positive interactions with friends and family members can be comforting in times of stress.
Look after yourself
The way a child’s caregiver, family, and community react to a tragedy can influence how they respond. It is important to seek help and support for yourself if you are struggling after a traumatic experience. This will help you recover and put you in a better position to support your loved ones.
Take care of yourself physically as well as mentally, by eating a balanced diet, getting the right amount of sleep, and exercising regularly. This will also set a good example for your child.
Speak to your child’s doctor if you are ever worried about their mental health. For further support, theoffer free trauma guides in a number of languages, including French, Spanish and Arabic.
Suicide prevention helplines
Always take your child seriously if they talk of suicide or exhibit suicidal behaviour. You can contact the following suicide helplines for support:
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be called in the US at 1-800-273-8255
- In the UK, call Samaritans at 08457 90 90 90
- In Australia you can call Lifeline at 13 11 14
The International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) can help you.