Understanding the Impact of Trauma on Children

By Viviana Villalobos, LPC

Trauma affects a person’s outlook on life, how they view the world and, most importantly, how they view themselves. Reactions to trauma can affect our daily life and impact our ability to function and interactions with others. Understanding how trauma can impact children can help parents to better understand their child and what they may be going experiencing. Over the past two years children have been exposed to many adversities including a global pandemic and, most recently, the war in Ukraine. Our children have been bombarded with the chaos that we often try to protect them from. It can be difficult to have conversations with children about situations that are out of our control, such as war.

The impact of trauma on children can manifest differently based on a child’s age and developmental level. A general rule to remember is that if your child is behaving in a way that is not typical for them it may be a response to a stressful, and possibly, traumatic situation. Traumatic experiences leave a legacy of reminders that may persist for years. These reminders are linked to aspects of the traumatic experience, its circumstances, and its aftermath. Children may be reminded by persons, places, things, situations, anniversaries, or by feelings such as renewed fear or sadness. At no age are children immune to the effects of traumatic experiences. Even infants and toddlers can experience traumatic stress. Below is a list of situations that may cause children, of any age, to experience trauma:

  • Physical, sexual, verbal, emotional abuse
  • Abandonment, neglect
  • Disorganized parent attachment
  • Absent parent
  • Domestic violence
  • Violence in the community (ex: school shootings, mass casualty events)
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Change in caregivers
  • Serious accidents (ex: car accidents)
  • Medical diagnoses/events, life-threatening illnesses
  • Natural disasters (ex: hurricanes, earthquakes or tsunamis)
  • Exposure to substance abuse (self or other)
  • War, terrorism, refugee experiences
  • Events reported in daily news (domestic and abroad)
  • Bullying, peer rejection
  • Major life changes (ex: moving, starting a new school)

Nearly all children and adolescents express some kind of distress or behavioral change in the acute phase of recovery from a traumatic event. Not all short-term responses to trauma are problematic, and some behavior changes may reflect adaptive attempts to cope with a difficult or challenging experience. Some children start exhibiting signs of traumatic stress immediately after the impactful event; for others, the signs are noticeable weeks or even months later. Your child’s behavioral changes may last for days, weeks, months or even years. It’s important to remember that these reactions to a traumatic experience are normal. Below are signs that you may notice in your child if they have been traumatized:

  • Intense and ongoing emotional upset, including feelings of fear, terror or under pressure
  • Anxiety or being in a state of constant alert
  • Depression
  • Nightmares or trouble sleeping
  • Changes in eating habits or loss of appetite
  • Trouble forming attachments or relationships
  • Difficulty trusting you or others
  • Difficulty concentrating or paying attention
  • Regression or loss of skills the child had previously mastered
  • Poor academic performance
  • Aches and pains
  • Pounding heart
  • Vomiting
  • Incontinence (loss of bladder or bowel control)
  • Substance use/abuse (drugs or alcohol)
  • Engaging in sexual activity/promiscuity
  • Risky behavior

If you feel that your child has been exposed to a traumatic event it is important that you speak with a professional about how to best help you child navigate all the emotions they are feeling. Most evidence-based, trauma-focused treatments include opportunities for the child to review the trauma in a safe, secure environment under the guidance of a specially trained mental health professional. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and other trauma-focused techniques can help children with cognitive distortions related to the trauma, such as self-blame, develop more adaptive understanding and perceptions of the trauma. Safe, secure, and trusting therapeutic relationships can help support children throughout the recovery process.