The Facts about Children and Trauma

Traumatic events can seriously impact a person’s life, but children who experience trauma can have severe and long-lasting effects well into adulthood if their trauma is left untreated. Research suggests that 14 to 43 percent of children have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. Childhood trauma can result from anything that makes a child feel helpless and disrupts their sense of safety and security, including: sexual, physical or verbal abuse; domestic violence; an unstable or unsafe environment; separation from a parent; neglect; bullying; serious illness; or intrusive medical procedures. Even more “minor” events such as dog bites, natural disasters or severe burns can create symptoms of extreme trauma.

Children and Trauma: The Signs

Children can experience a wide range of responses to trauma, ranging from temporary worries and fears to long-term problems such as depression, withdrawal, anger and signs of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Other signs that a child is having difficulty coping with trauma are:

* Recurring nightmares
* Intrusive memories of the event
* Flashbacks
* Feelings of anxiety, worries and fears about safety of themselves and others
* Increased somatic complaints (e.g.; headaches, stomachaches, aches and pains)
* Worrying about dying at an early age/anxiety about death
* Acting younger than their age (e.g.; clingy or whiny behavior, thumb sucking, etc.)
* Repeating behavior that reminds them of the trauma (e.g.; repeatedly playing in a way that re-enacts the trauma)
* Regressive symptoms (e.g.; bed-wetting, baby talk  or losing speech or motor skills)
* Freezing (sudden immobility)
* Separation anxiety
* Poor self-esteem
* Substance abuse
* Avoiding situations that may or may not be related to the trauma
* Changes in behavior (e.g.; withdrawal, angry outbursts, aggression)
* Increased sensitivity to sounds
* Changes in sleep and appetite
* Sexually inappropriate behavior
* Self-destructive behavior
* Denial

Children and Trauma: What Parents Can Do

Traumatic events can occur at any age. Depending on how old your child is, you can help them to better cope with the stress of a traumatic event by following these suggestions:

Preschool-age Children
* Stick to your regular family routines.
* Give extra attention and consideration.
* Encourage your child to express his or her feelings through drawing, story-telling, or other forms of self-expression.
* Avoid unnecessary separations.
* Limit media exposure.
* Reassure them by developing a safety plan in case anything happens again.

Elementary-age Children
* Give extra attention and consideration.
* Listen to your child retell his or her experience, no matter how many times they repeat it.
* Encourage your child to express his or her feelings through conversation and play.
* Set gentle but firm limits on behavior that occurs as acting out.
* Provide structured chores or rehabilitation actives that aren’t too demanding.
* Rehearse safety drills for future incidents.

Pre-adolescents and Adolescents
* Give extra attention and consideration.
* Be there to listen, but don’t force them to talk.
* Encourage discussion of the traumatic experience with his or her peers.
* Encourage participation in regular social and recreational activities.
* Rehearse safety drills for future incidents.

Children and Trauma: Getting Help for PTSD

No matter what you do, remember that you canít make your child heal any faster. The best (and only thing) you can do is to help your child understand and deal with the traumatic experience. If signs of PTSD persist for several weeks, or get worse, consult a professional who is specialized in dealing with children and trauma. Untreated PTSD can have long-lasting and far-reaching consequences to a person’s physical and emotional well-being, as well as to their ability to function normally within relationships and society. The sooner it is addressed, the easier it will be to overcome.