More than two thirds of children report at least one traumatic event before reaching adulthood. You may have heard people talk about childhood trauma, but what does that all mean?
Traumatic events are intense situations that:
- Threaten or cause harm to a child’s emotional or physical well-being.
- The harm can be physical or emotional, real or perceived, and it can threaten the child or someone close to him or her.
Potentially traumatic events include:
- Abuse (physical, sexual, verbal, emotional), family, school, or community violence, natural disasters or pandemics, serious accidents or illness, bullying, separation from caregivers or loved ones, refugee or war experiences, military family-related stressors, and witnessing harm or a sudden loss of a loved one.
After a traumatic event, children may react in many ways. Child traumatic stress is when the intense fear and stress response that occurs during the trauma event overwhelms a child’s ability to cope. Trauma responses occur when your child’s protective “alarm system” was turned “on” during the event but aren’t turning “off” after the event.
Not all children have traumatic stress after a traumatic event. However, if they do, your child’s behavior or mood may change. They may:
- Become more withdrawn and less interested in activities they used to enjoy
- Become sad, overly sensitive or easily startled/jumpy
- Avoid certain things or places
- Develop fears of things they weren’t afraid of before
- Become crankier and more irritable, angry or demanding
- Have changes with eating or sleeping or have more complaints about aches and pains in their body
- May have a harder time concentrating at home, school, or while playing
- May become clingier to their caregivers
These reactions may show up right after the event, or later. They are often normal and protective reactions for a child who has experienced a trauma and may only be a problem if they continue for a long period of time.
The good news is that with time, most kids do well and return to their regular selves. For those who continue to struggle with these reactions, they may benefit from having support from a mental health therapist. Help is possible.
With the help of supportive and caring adults, children can and do recover. Here are some things you can do to help support your child after experiencing a trauma.
- We know kids do best when parents are doing well. You can best help your child when you take care of yourself.
- Maintain consistency, stick with your usual routines as much as possible.
- Give your child extra reassurance and support.
- Be patient.
- Keep the door open for your child to talk about their thoughts, feelings, and reactions – especially fears or worries.
- Respond, don’t react. Model “calm”.
- Use coping skills you’ve found helpful for yourself and your child.
If you’re worried about your child’s reactions and feel they may need to talk to a trained professional, a good place to start is with your family doctor or pediatrician. They often know your child and your family and can help you understand what behaviors are age-appropriate or of concern.
They can give you referrals and resources for mental health professionals who specialize in working with youth who have experienced trauma.
You may also contact your insurance company or Primary Children’s Center for Safe and Healthy Families.
- Intermountain Free Emotional Health Hotline — 833-442-2211
- SafeUT— This app answers crisis calls, and chats—about yourself or someone else—24/7. Counseling topics include depression, anxiety, loss, grief, suicide prevention, or life challenges. SafeUT is free and confidential
- The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN)
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
- SAMHSA: Tips for talking with and helping children and youth cope with a disaster or traumatic event