Trauma in the Lives of Children:
Recognizing and Responding to It

Assumptions about Trauma

Typically, when hearing or reading the word “trauma,” our thoughts travel to September 11th, the bombing at the Boston marathon, an explosion in a war zone, or a weather-related natural disaster.

Yet trauma happens in the ordinary course of life each day – in our homes, schools, communities, and neighborhoods. It may include:

Child abuse or neglect Bullying
Death of a loved one Divorce
Accident or illness Family fighting
Medical procedure Community violence


Definition of Trauma

Trauma refers to any event that is “outside the range of everyday human experience.” (Brohl, p.9) It can create a higher and longer than normal stress response in a child along with feelings of being trapped or helpless. At an extreme, it may even include horror or terror.

Trauma may result from a personal experience of heightened alarm or from witnessing an experience of threat or injury to someone else. Trauma affects each child uniquely.

  • A car accident may severely affect a five-year-old. He may refuse to get back into his car seat for days or weeks.
  • Another child of the same age may display little hesitation about climbing back into his seat.

Trauma is not defined by the event, but rather by the nervous system’s response to it.


Recognizing Trauma in Childhood

Children are dependent. The younger the child, the more dependent he is. They are unable to totally protect themselves or know when an adult-like situation may be beyond their coping abilities.

Often, they are unable to verbally express their needs or feelings when something has adversely affected them. Since you can’t rely on them to tell you how upset they are, you will need to look for other tell-tale signs.

Common symptoms of trauma include:

Anxiety Difficulty trusting
Hyperactivity Low self-esteem
Defiance Stomachaches
Eating disorders Sleep disturbances
Anger Learning difficulties
Avoidance Antisocial behavior
Headache High risk behaviors

Not every child who exhibits one of these behaviors has been impacted by trauma. Many such behaviors may be indicative of an unfulfilled basic need, an illness, a current stage of development, a temperament trait, lack of maturity, or a temporary minor stressor in a child’s life.

Whenever a child is behaving in a manner that feels disturbing or seems unusual, parents need to pay attention!!!

Too often caregivers hear others state emphatically that a child is acting out “intentionally” or to “get attention.” Pausing to consider what the child may recently have been exposed to or may currently be experiencing, an adult might realize an incident “outside the normal range” could be affecting the child.

For example, after a visit to the Emergency Room for five stitches, a child may suddenly resist going to bed at night, even though it did not seem to the parent to be a big deal at the time.

A child’s development, especially brain wiring, may be permanently affected by ongoing, unrecognized trauma. Yet trauma-impacted children can also be healed by caring adults who notice unusual behavior, respond with sensitivity, and when necessary seek outside professional support in a timely manner.

Healthy relationships are KEY to overcoming the impact of trauma in the life of a child.


Managing Trauma in Childhood

The Trigger

A weekend at Grandma and Grandpa’s was on the calendar for seven-year-old Max. He typically looked forward to these times to play games, read stories, and visit new places with his grandparents. But when his mother, Justine, reminded him several days prior that he would be meeting Grandpa after school on Friday, he burst into tears, flew to his room, and threw himself on the bed.

Startled by his reaction, Justine took a deep breath and proceeded to slowly follow him. She knelt by the bed and gently rubbed his back. “You are very upset,” Justine stated. “I’m NOT GOING!,” Max sobbed. “You don’t want to go,” Justine calmly responded. “I’m staying RIGHT HERE,” Max sniffed. “You want to stay home with Daddy and me.”

Justine’s reminder may have “triggered” a memory or flashback for Max. Perhaps:

  • Perhaps his previous visit with his grandparents had not gone well.
  • He may have overheard a loud conversation between them.
  • Maybe he was forced to eat something he disliked.
  • He may have awoken when thunder cracked outside his window and then couldn’t get back to sleep.
  • Perhaps he was not able to find his grandparents when he got off a ride at the amusement park they visited and been afraid that he was left behind.

Regardless of the cause, Max’s lower brain remembers the experience and immediately enters survival mode. This is the fundamental purpose of our brains: to keep us alive.

Responding to Trauma

Providing Safety

His mother responds by creating SAFETY, the most vital response to trauma. She:

  • stays calm,
  • doesn’t ask questions,
  • listens via reflecting his feelings and thoughts,
  • uses gentle touch,
  • models deep breathing for him while reassuring him that he is safe at home.

All of this is done in an attempt to soothe and allow Max’s stress hormones to decrease.

Later, when he is calm, she can invite Max to talk about the last overnight visit. If he chooses not to, she respects his wishes, not forcing him to share at the time.


Recounting the Event

However, since it is very important in the healing process that a child have the opportunity to talk about the traumatic event, to recount it, and put words to what happened, the mother could guide Max to gradually and over time re-tell the story of what scared him.

She can let him “fast forward” over the most upsetting parts, each time encouraging him to fill in more of the details, until the emotion surrounding the event has dissipated.

It is probably best to cancel the upcoming weekend plans or make arrangements for Max to spend the weekend with another trusted relative or friend if Justine and her husband need to be away. Max should be included in this discussion.


Giving Some Control

Along with feeling safe, he needs some CONTROL. Allowing him to have input can meet this need. Depending on the situation, it might also be helpful to include the grandparents in the healing process.

Getting Outside Support

If Max’s disturbing behavior persists, increases, or he shares something more distressing, his parents might need to seek professional support.

Note: Unfortunately, not all professionals are trauma-informed, so parents need to research therapists and agencies to discern if they are trauma-trained.

A Parting Thought

Trauma affects 25% of the population. Children are vulnerable. As parents and caregivers, we owe it to them to be nurturing, observant, and available so that they may reach their full potential despite whatever life throws in their pathway.

By Pam Nicholson, MSW,
Certified Trauma Competent Family Professional



Brohl, Kathryn, Working with Traumatized Children: A Handbook for Healing
Levine, Peter A. and Maggie Kline, Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes
Siegel, Daniel, The Whole-Brain Child




For more information about managing anger, check out the following books. Purchasing from through our website supports the work we do to help parents do the best job they can to raise their children.


You Can Control Your Anger: 21 Ways to do It by Borchardt The Explosive Child by Ross Greene Angry Kids, Frustrated Parents by Terry Highland and Jerry Davis How to Take the Grrrr out of Anger by Elizabeth Verdick


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