How Do Children React to Trauma?

Children’s reactions to traumatic events are strongly influenced by the behaviors of their parents and other significant adults in their environment. For better or for worse, parents and adults serve as role models for children, showing them how to interpret and react to a given situation. Older children may be less dependent on adults’ reactions, yet they, too, are influenced by the responses of adults in their lives, as well as what they see in the media.

Children react to trauma in different ways. Some children do not show outward signs of distress. However, it is possible to divide typical reactions to a traumatic event into three developmental age groups:

  • Early Childhood (3 to 5 year olds)
    Typical reactions in this age group include clinging to parents, crying and regressing to behaviors which are typical of earlier stages of development. These behaviors often include wetting, thumb-sucking and a fear of the dark. Frequently, children will play games that reenact the details of the traumatic event again and again. It is through this dramatic play that children are often able to work through an experienced traumatic event.
  • Middle childhood (6 to 11 year olds)
    Typical reactions in this age group are anger, aggressiveness, avoidance of subjects related to the trauma, regressive behavior, isolation, and difficulties in concentrating and studying. Children on the younger end of this age group will also often repeatedly reenact the traumatic event through dramatic play.
  • Adolescence (12 – 18 year olds)
    This age group shows varied reactions to traumatic events. Some adolescent reactions resemble those of adults and others resemble those of younger children. In addition, adolescents may evidence increased risk-taking behavior, isolation, antisocial behavior, and increased use of addictive substances such as drugs and alcohol. The behavior of adolescents who have experienced trauma can be impulsive, sometimes clearly provoking danger or ignoring it. Reactions to trauma may aggravate existing conflicts between parents and adolescents and may contribute to a vicious cycle where increasingly risky behaviors lead evoke more extreme reactions.

In many situations following a traumatic event a child or adolescent may be experiencing significant distress even if they do not express it outwardly. It is important for parents to develop sensitivity to their child’s distress signals and to find pathways toward open communication with their children about their traumatic experiences. In most cases, children and adolescents cope well with trauma, and return to normal functioning given time. As with adults, the healing process is predicted by the degree of exposure to the event, the amount of support available and the child’s general level of functioning before the event. A sensitive and tuned-in environment will help the child return to normal functioning more quickly.

Parenting After a Traumatic Event
Even when not having witnessing an event themselves, many parents suffer from post-traumatic symptoms and intense feelings of guilt after their child’s exposure to a traumatic event. As parents, it is important to be sensitive to your own needs and find ways to take care of yourselves during this trying time. Attending to your own needs will help your child’s healing process. If, after a period of time, you continue to feel distress and/or suffer from post-traumatic symptoms, it may be time to turn to professional help.