Children and Trauma: 7 Things to Know

AnnMarie ChurchillChildren & Youth Issues1 Comment

Children are affected by events that threaten their safety and the safety of their parents and significant others. Extreme negative events such as a motor vehicle accident, community disaster, loss of parent, animal attack or serious injury or illness can cause children to sense the world as dangerous and unpredictable, resulting in traumatic reactions.

For some children these reactions occur immediately following the event, and for others the reactions surface much later.  It is important that adults recognize these reactions and help children cope.

Common reactions include:
1. Emotional Upset

Extreme fear and shock from the incident can cause children to be unsettled emotionally.  Crying, anger outbursts, sadness and anxiety are all common reactions. Children may seem calm one moment and upset the next. Minor frustrations after the incident can trigger significant distress.

2. Sleep Problems

Children can remain unsettled and scared, making it difficult to fall asleep or sleep on their own. Also, for some children, traumatic events can get replayed in dreams, causing nightmares and sleep disruption.

3. Separation Anxiety

Children often become more demanding or clingy after a traumatic incident. They may have difficulty separating from a parent and be reluctant to return to daycare or school. This is an attempt to self-soothe and seek reassurance to regain their sense of safety and connection.

4. Regression

Children often regress in their development following a traumatic incident. Traumatic events stress a child’s coping resources. Children who have learned to sleep alone or were toilet trained may have difficulty with these tasks for some time after the incident.

5. Physical Complaints

Physical tension as well as emotional shock and upset during and following a traumatic event can cause physical symptoms such as stomachaches and headaches.

6. Behavior Change

Following a traumatic incident, children may display new behaviors such as aggression, isolation or defiance. Concerning or difficult behaviors that emerge following a traumatic incident are usually related to feelings of fear and mistrust.

7. Avoidance

Like adults, children often try to avoid anything related to the traumatic incident. For example, following a car accident a child may refuse to get in a car or become upset when a parent drives away in a car.  In the case of a dog attack, a child may develop considerable fear of dogs and become upset in the presence of dogs or other animals. Anything related to a traumatic incident can become a trigger for reminders and reactions related to the trauma.

For most children, these reactions usually resolve within 2-4 weeks. However, reactions may be prolonged or complicated depending on individual and situational factors. For example, children with sensitive temperaments or anxiety disorders may not recover spontaneously. Previous trauma and loss in a child’s life may exacerbate more current trauma reactions. In addition, trauma that is repetitive or on-going, such as neglect, domestic violence or abuse, can create significant difficulties and longer-term effects, requiring professional intervention.

Adult support and protection is the most important strategy for helping children cope with a traumatic life event. Patience, extra attention and compassion convey to a child that they are protected and can count on adults for safety and predictability. Adults can also model resilience for children by expressing their own thoughts and emotions appropriately and seeking support for themselves when faced with difficult life events.

AnnMarie Churchill, Ph.D., MSW
Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute Inc.

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  • Helen Michell

    AS indigenous peoples, we all have gone through trauma, in our lifetime. As well as our parents and grand parents. Now our children and our grandchildren, are going through this same phase. But, today it is the authorities, namely the RCMP, who are putting fear into our children, and than the social workers of this province. And the racism and the discrimination, runs through our blood, and through our childrens blood. If we are not protected, than how can we protect our children. My own children have seen the police brutalities, the abusive social workers of this province, throughout our lifetime on this earth.We lived through the police brutalities, and the injustices, the works. We have seen so many funerals of our own family members, throughout this past 60 years, loss of our lands, loss of our language, loss of our homes, so many tragedies, and loss of our nieces and nephews to the welfare system. Yet, we still kept our own children through this holocaust, and made ourselves and our children, stronger than ever. We managed to keep our children, but not without a fight. Today our children are stronger and healthier than we were, when we were children. It is the governing system, who need to change, their attitude toward us as the real indigenous peoples of this province. I am still fighting for our original Maxan Lake Band, 60 years later. It was stolen by the governing powers, who were working for the provincial and federal governments of this country. NOw, we want it all back, so we can have our life back, as the original Bear Clan families of the original Maxan Lake Band.