When a child feels intensely threatened by an event he or she is involved in or witnesses, we call that event a trauma. When children do not feel safe or protected, the event may be experienced as traumatic.  There is a range of traumatic events or trauma types to which children and adolescents can be exposed.  Some of the more common traumatic events impacting children are:

  • Surgery or Serious Illness
  • Accidents
  • Constant and Intense Bullying
  • Separation from Loved Ones
  • Natural Disasters
  • Emotional Abuse
  • Physical Abuse
  • Sexual Abuse
  • Neglect
  • Loss/Abandonment
  • Isolation within the Family
  • Domestic Violence
  • Community Violence
  • Substance Abuse
  • Mental Illness
  • Terrorism
  • Flight from Home as a Refugee

What does this look like in my child? (Symptoms)

At School or at Home

  • Unusually high level of anger/excessive temper
  • Aggression towards family and others
  • Verbal abuse towards others
  • Overly bossy or controlling
  • School problems
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Suicidal thoughts or actions
  • Stomachaches, headaches and other physical complaints
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Fear of being separated from caregiver
  • Acting out in social situations
  • Imitating the traumatic event
  • Fear of adults who remind them of the trauma
  • Eating problems such as loss of appetite, low weight or digestion issues
  • Nightmares
  • Sleeplessness
  • Irritability
  • Inability to trust others or make friends
  • Lack of self confidence
  • Loneliness
  • Confusion
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Clinginess
  • Sexual knowledge beyond the child’s age
  • Overreaction to situations
  • Re-creation of the traumatic event during play
  • Hoarding of food
  • Repetitive fantasies of revenge
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Depression
  • Inappropriate guilt and shame
  • Feeling like a ‘bad’ person

Compiled from:

Youth who have experienced traumatic events may act out from past patterns at times when they feel unsafe or experience a trigger.  A trigger is an experience, whether it’s a sound, smell, sight, feeling, places, posture, tone of voice, etc., that causes an individual to re-experience negative feelings and emotions as a result of a past event or trauma. Depending on whether the child has a “fight,” “flight,” or “freeze” response, the child’s behavior may look like they are throwing a tantrum, not listening on purpose, or being disobedient.  These behaviors, however, are reflexes or responses to triggers, and these behaviors are not on purpose or planned. When a child’s body and brain become overwhelmed by a traumatic memory, they cannot clearly consider the consequences of their behavior or its effect on others in that moment.

How can I help my child now?

Steps to Helping Kids Cope with Trauma

  1. Reassure the child. Communicate to them that they are safe and that everything will be alright.
  2. Express your love to the child. Let them know you are there to comfort them.
  3. Praise the child when they obey and are responsible.
  4. Spend time with the child. Give them the extra attention they may need.
  5. Don’t expect the child to handle the situation “as an adult”. Allow room for immaturity.
  6. Be honest. Children can tell when they are being lied to.
  7. Stick to a routine schedule, but remember to allow room for fun.
  8. Give them an opportunity to share their feelings. Listen to them and respond with reassuring, simple answers.
  9. Encourage creativity. Many children will express their feelings about the trauma by acting the scenario out with toys or by drawing pictures.
  10. Don’t hide your feelings. Let the child know it is ok to cry.
  11. Take out time to cope with your own feelings about the trauma. Release this stress and tension before speaking with your child.
  12. Give hugs. Use this form of touch and comfort to reassure the child of your presence.
  13. Pay attention to any media the child is exposed to. News coverage of a disaster or images related to a traumatic experience can negatively affect a child.

What can I do for my child in the long-run?

It might be helpful to remember that your child’s troublesome behavior may be a learned response to stress—it may even be what kept your child alive in a very unsafe situation. It will take time and patience for your child’s body and brain to learn to respond in ways that are more appropriate for his or her current, safe environment.

What families can do:

  • Limit your child’s media exposure to the traumatic event.
  • As much as you can, watch news reports of the traumatic event with your child. Avoid exposing your child to graphic images and videos.
  • Provide your child with ongoing opportunities to talk
  • Acknowledge and validate your child’s concerns.
  • Reassure your child.
  • Don’t pressure your child into talking.
  • Be honest.
  • Do “normal” activities with your child
  • Find a sport that your child enjoys.
  • Offer to participate in sports, games, or physical activities with your child.
  • Encourage your child to go outside
  • Schedule a family outing to a hiking trail, swimming pool, or park.
  • Take younger children to a playground, activity center, or arrange play dates.
  • Focus on overall diet rather than specific foods.
  • Limit fried food, sweet desserts, sugary snacks and cereals, and refined flour.
  • Be a role model.
  • Cook more meals at home.
  • Make mealtimes about more than just food.
  • Create routines. Minimize stress at home. Try to make sure your child has space and time for rest, play, and fun.
  • Manage your own stress.
  • Speak of the future and make plans.
  • Keep your promises.
  • If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t be afraid to admit it.
  • Remember that children often personalize situations.

When to seek treatment for your child’s trauma

Usually, your child’s feelings of anxiety, numbness, confusion, guilt, and despair following a traumatic event will start to fade within a relatively short time. However, if the traumatic stress reaction is so intense and persistent that it’s interfering with your child’s ability to function at school or home, they may need help from a mental health professional—preferably a trauma specialist.

WVDE Disclaimer

Please Note: Links to resources outside the West Virginia Department of Education’s website do not constitute an endorsement by the WVDE. Users should vet linked resources to meet audience needs.