How Children React to Trauma
When a child feels intensely threatened by an event he or she is involved in or witnesses, we call that event a trauma.
Child traumatic stress (CTS) is a psychological reaction that some children have to a traumatic experience. There are numerous kinds of traumas, such as:
- Automobile accidents
- Serious injuries
- Acts of violence
- Physical or sexual abuse
- Medical procedures
- The unexpected death of a loved one
- Life-threatening natural disasters
- Intense and ongoing emotional upset
- Behavioral changes
- Difficulties at school
- Problems maintaining relationships
- Difficulty eating and sleeping
- Aches and pains
- Substance abuse, dangerous behaviors, or unhealthy sexual activity among older children
Traumatic Stress and Young Children
Think of what it is like for young children to be in traumatic situations.
- Young children can feel totally helpless and passive.
- Young children can cry for help or desperately wish for someone to intervene.
- Young children can feel deeply threatened by separation from parents or caretakers.
- Young children become particularly upset when they hear cries of distress from a parent or caretaker.
- Young children rely on a protective shield provided by adults and older siblings who can judge the seriousness of danger and ensure their safety and welfare.
- Young children often don’t recognize a traumatic danger until it happens —for example, in a near drowning, an attack by a dog, or an accidental scalding.
- Young children can be the target of physical and sexual abuse by the very people they rely on for their protection and safety.
- Young children can witness violence within the family or be left helpless after a parent or caretaker is injured, as might occur in a serious automobile accident.
- Young children may become passive and quiet, easily alarmed, and less secure about being provided with protection.
- Their minds may stay on a central action, like being hit or seeing someone fall to the floor.
- Young children may have simple thoughts about protection, for example, “Daddy hit mommy, mommy call police.”
- Young children can become more generally fearful, especially in regard to separations and new situations.
- In circumstances of abuse by a parent or caretaker, the young child may act confused as to where to find protection and where there is threat.
- A child may respond to very general reminders of a trauma, like the color red or the sounds of another child crying
Traumatic Stress and School-Aged Children
School-age children start to face additional dangers, with more ability to judge the seriousness of a threat and to think about protective actions.
- School-age children usually do not see themselves as able to counter a serious danger directly, but they imagine actions they wish they could take, like those of their comic strip heroes.
- In traumatic situations when there is violence against family members, they can feel like failures for not having done something helpful.
- School-age children may also feel very ashamed or guilty.
The reactions of school-age children after a trauma include a wide range of intrusive images and thoughts.
School-age children think about lots of frightening moments during their traumatic experiences. They also go over what could have stopped them from happening and what could have made them turn out differently.
School-age children respond to very concrete reminders about the trauma, such as:
- Someone with the same hairstyle as an abuser
- The monkey bars on a playground where a child got shot
- A feeling of being alone inside like they had when one parent attacked the other
- More than any other group, school-age children may go back and forth between shy or withdrawn behavior and unusually aggressive behavior.
- School-age children can have thoughts of revenge that they cannot resolve.
- Normal sleep patterns can be easily disturbed. They can move around restlessly in their sleep, vocalize, and wake up tired.
- Their lack of restful sleep can interfere with their daytime concentration and attention.
- It can then be more difficult for them to study because they remain on alert for things happening around them.
Traumatic Stress and Adolescents
With the help of their friends, adolescents begin a shift toward more actively judging and addressing dangers on their own. This is a developing skill, and lots of things can go wrong along the way. With independence, adolescents can be in more situations that can turn from danger to trauma. They could:
- Be drivers or passengers in car accidents
- Be victims of rape, dating violence, and criminal assault
- Be present during school or community violence
- Experience the loss of friends under traumatic circumstances
They can feel guilty, sometimes thinking their actions made matters worse.
Adolescents are learning to handle intense physical and emotional reactions in order to take action in the face of danger. They are also learning more about human motivation and intent and struggle over issues of irresponsibility, malevolence, and human accountability.
Adolescents are particularly challenged by reactions that persist after traumatic experiences.
- Adolescents can easily interpret many of these reactions as being regressive or childlike.
- Adolescents may interpret their reactions as signs of “going crazy,” of being weak, or of being different from everyone else.
- Adolescents may be embarrassed by bouts of fear and exaggerated physiological responses.
- Adolescents may harbor the belief that they are unique in their pain and suffering.
While younger children may use play, adolescents may respond to their experience through dangerous reenactment behavior, that is, by reacting with too much “protective” aggression for a situation at hand. Their behavior in response to reminders can go to either of two extremes: reckless behavior that endangers themselves and others, or extreme avoidant behavior that can derail their adolescent years.
The avoidant life of an adolescent may go unnoticed.
- Adolescents try to get rid of posttrauma emotions and physical responses through the use of alcohol and drugs.
- Their sleep disturbance can remain hidden in late night studying, television watching, and partying.
- It is a dangerous mix when adolescent thoughts of revenge are added to their usual feelings of invulnerability.
Understanding Child Traumatic Stress
Positive Coping Strategies for Families:
- Maintain your normal schedule
- Healthy eating and sleeping routines
- Spend time doing enjoyable activities together-go on a walk together, play games, watch a favorite movie or read books
- Talk with children when they initiate conversations about what happened and listen to their concerns
- Seek counseling, if needed