Childhood traumatic stress occurs when violent or dangerous events overwhelm a child’s or adolescent’s ability to cope.
Traumatic events may include:
- Neglect and psychological, physical, or sexual abuse
- Natural disasters, terrorism, and community school violence
- Witnessing or experiencing intimate partner violence
- Commercial sexual exploitation
- Serious accidents, life threatening illness, or sudden violent loss of a loved one
- Refugee and war experiences
- Military family-related stressors, such as parental deployment, loss or injury
Learn to understand the reasons for certain behaviors and emotions. You’ll become better prepared to help the child cope.
Learn about the different types of traumatic stress, and the violence and disasters that have traumatized children. The signs of traumatic stress are different in each child and young children react differently than older children.
Preschool children fear separation from parents or caregivers and cry and scream a lot. They eat poorly and lose weight and have nightmares.
Elementary school children become anxious and fearful and feel guilt and shame. They have a hard time concentrating and difficulty sleeping.
Middle and high school children feel depressed or alone and develop eating disorders and self-harming behaviors. They begin to abuse alcohol or drugs and become sexually active.
Many of these children lack the ability to function and interact with others and the impact of traumatic stress can last well beyond childhood.
Child trauma survivors are more likely to have learning problems, including lower grades and more suspensions and expulsions. There’s increased use of health services, including mental health services. There can be long term health problems such as diabetes and heart disease.
Many children do recover, with proper support, and many are able to adapt to and overcome their traumatic experiences. Family members and caring adults have the important roles of assuring the child is safe at home and at school and to know the proper measures to take to get the child help, and must exercise patience. They need to explain to the child that they are not responsible for what happened and to not blame themselves.
Some recover quickly and others more slowly. Be supportive! Sometimes a mental health professional trained in evidence-based trauma treatment can help children and families cope with the impact of traumatic events and move toward recovery.