Trauma shows up differently for each child, but there are common signs. Noticing the signs can help a therapist determine the best ways to help.
Your child’s experiences during their formative years — from birth to age 8 — are especially meaningful, as they lay the foundation for the rest of your child’s life. While it’s often said that children are resilient, this perception could be because trauma looks different in children than it does in adults.
Trauma during childhood is associated with numerous mental health disorders and physical illnesses among children, adolescents, and adults. A growing number of experts are calling it a public health crisis.
Unresolved or unprocessed trauma can have significant consequences for children, leaving a negative impact that lasts long into adult life. Children must get the help they need to resolve sources of conflict, prevent long-term suffering, and begin healing.
“Trauma” refers to any disturbing event or experience perceived as life-threatening or any event that causes great psychological, physical, or emotional harm.
Trauma can be a single event, such as a natural disaster, car accident, illness, or loss, or it can be a reoccurring experience, like abuse, racism, neglect, or bullying. The reoccurrence of traumatic experiences or traumatic stress is known as complex trauma.
Children may also experience trauma from witnessing — or having knowledge of — harm to a parent or loved one, such as in situations of intimate partner violence.
Childhood trauma can occur when a disturbing event or experience occurs. However, not all disturbing events will result in trauma for children.
What makes an event traumatic can vary from child to child depending on the severity of the event and additional factors, like:
- The age of the child. A toddler’s experience with trauma will differ from a teen’s experience.
- The developmental stage of the child. A toddler with limited communication skills may not express trauma in a way that’s easy to recognize.
- The child’s environment and caregivers. Were caregivers supportive of the child? Did parents acknowledge or ignore the trauma? Did they react with strong emotions?
How a child responds following a traumatic event will differ based on both their developmental stage and chronological age. It is essential to know the signs of trauma in children, as the impact of unresolved trauma can last for years.
Some of the most common signs of childhood trauma are:
- fear, including fear when being separated from a parent
- frequent crying or tearfulness
- regressive behavior, or returning to an earlier stage of development — also a sign of stress
- bed wetting
- difficulty concentrating
- expressing concern about their safety
- being easily frightened or scared
- difficulty sleeping
- reenacting trauma during play, especially in younger children, like toddlers and those in elementary school
- weight loss or gain, and changes in eating habits
- low tolerance for frustration, suggesting a reduced window of tolerance
- sexualized behavior
- risk-taking, or unusually reckless behavior
- self-harm, such as cutting
- intense outbursts of anger
- dissociation, or appearing withdrawn, shut down, or as if daydreaming
Like adults, children can receive a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Childhood trauma can take place at any age and is very common. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are potentially traumatic events in childhood, such as neglect, abuse, death of a caregiver, parental substance use, or parental mental illness.
The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that around one-half of American children ages 18 years or younger — roughly 34 million kids — have faced at least one potentially traumatic early childhood experience.
The more ACEs a child encounters, the higher their risk for issues with:
- mental health
- physical health
- behavioral issues
- educational problems
- substance use disorders
- socioeconomic challenges
- relationships later in life
Complex trauma in children, as defined by The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, is when a child is exposed to multiple traumatic events, such as abuse and community violence. Complex trauma often has a pervasive impact and can disrupt the child’s attachment with caregivers, development, and sense of self.
An event that’s traumatic for one child might not be traumatic for another. Some children are considered to have a high risk of encountering childhood trauma based on family history and environment, previous trauma history, and conditions of poverty causing prolonged traumatic stress.
Additional causes of childhood trauma are:
- exposure to violence, such as within the community or school
- traumatic grief from the death of a parent or loved one
- loss of a parent through incarceration
- natural disasters
- neglect of physical or emotional needs
- abuse, which could be sexual, physical, or emotional
- medical trauma
- intimate partner violence
- refugee trauma
- chronic illness or threat of illness, such as the COVID-19 pandemic
- racism, which is a prolonged form of trauma
- war or threats of terrorism
Although trauma can be complex, the way to help a child doesn’t have to be. Several resources are available to help you and your child, from professional help with a trauma-informed therapist to self-help books. Getting informed on childhood trauma is an excellent place to start.
For cases of trauma, seeking professional help from a trauma-informed therapist is best. Trauma-informed therapy is a holistic approach that emphasizes safety in addressing trauma by ensuring the participant is empowered in their choices and treatments.
Additional forms of therapy that can help children recover from trauma include:
- Play therapy. Children, especially younger children, learn and grow through play. Play therapy can assist children in expressing and processing their feelings related to trauma in a safe format.
- Family therapy. Parental family involvement is vital to help a child recover from a traumatic experience. Family therapy provides support to children learning new ways to cope with symptoms of trauma. It also strengthens relationships or attachments, which is integral in healing from trauma.
- Art or music therapy and other expressive interventions. Expressive arts can improve mental health outcomes for adults exposed to ACEs. Such interventions can be especially helpful when used as supplemental treatment options.
- Bibliotherapy. Also known as therapeutic storytelling, bibliotherapy can be an excellent resource for both parents and children. There are self-help books that can further assist parents in supporting their child who has experienced trauma. Such books are written to provide guidance and offer hope to children and families who have experienced trauma.
Trauma books for parents and children
If you’re a parent or caregiver looking to understand more about trauma, these books could be a good place to start:
- “What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing” by Bruce D. Perry, MD, PhD, and Oprah Winfrey
- “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk, MD
- “Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes: Awakening the Ordinary Miracle of Healing” by Peter A. Levine, PhD, and Maggie Kline, LMFT
- “The Power of Showing Up: How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired” by Daniel J. Siegel, MD, and Tina P. Bryson, PhD
Children’s books that explore topics of trauma can help children by validating their feelings. If you think that exploring trauma through reading could help your child, here are some recommendations:
- “A Terrible Thing Happened” by Margaret M. Holmes
- “The Invisible String” by Patrice Karst
- “The Day My Daddy Lost His Temper” by Carol S. McCleary, PsyD
- “Help Your Dragon Cope with Trauma” by Steve Herman
- “You Weren’t With Me” by Chandra G. Ippen, PhD
- “Once I Was Very Very Scared” by Chandra G. Ippen, PhD
- “Kaddish for Grandpa in Jesus’ Name Amen” by James Howe
- “Please Tell: A Child’s Story About Sexual Abuse” by Jessie
In the wake of a traumatic incident, the goal is to ensure and reestablish safety for your child. This healing process can begin by staying consistent and present with your child’s emotional and physical needs, as this provides structure and space for them to express themselves.
Parents can further help children by engaging their community for support:
- Reach out to trusted family members or loved ones and share plans for keeping your child safe.
- Practice self-care by enlisting support from your community when you need a break. This is especially important if you have unresolved trauma, which can be triggered by your child’s experience.
- Advocate for your child at their school. Trauma can impact kids in a number of ways in their school settings. School support services that address both emotional and educational needs are important and often needed.
While the focus is often on the traumatic event that occurred, the healing journey must also emphasize everything that takes place after the trauma. For parents, loved ones, and caregivers of children who have experienced trauma, your support in their healing is vital.
The support of family and caring community members can serve as a protective factor for children who have experienced trauma. Research has shown that early intervention for children can minimize the adverse effects of trauma in their adult life.
Parents can use the resources listed below to assist if their children have experienced trauma:
- The National Child Traumatic Stress Network
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
- Choosing the Right Therapist for Your Child
- American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy
- Helping Children Cope After a Traumatic Event: A recovery guide for parents, teachers and community leaders from the Child Mind Institute
If you know or suspect child abuse, please report it, as doing so could save a life. Call or text The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 800-442-4453.
DRK Beauty Healing is a mental health and wellness company for Black, Latinx, Indigenous, South Asian, East Asian, and all women and nonbinary People of Color to discover, experience, and create their unique well-being journey. They offer free therapy through their nonprofit initiative, one of America’s leading free mental health resources. They also provide access to a broad range of affordable resources (e.g., support group sessions) from culturally responsive therapists, faith-based teachers, and practitioners of various spiritual, healing, and occupational modalities. DRK Beauty Healing believes its holistic approach to healing will ultimately empower People of Color across the globe to forge their unique path to wellness.