Understanding Childhood Trauma



Childhood trauma occurs more than you think. More than two-thirds of children reported at least 1 traumatic event by age 16.  After a disaster or traumatic event, youth and adolescents may complain about physical aches or pains because they cannot identify what is really bothering them emotionally. When we better understand childhood trauma, impact and symptomology, we can better understand the language it speaks when expressed by children, in the classroom and in the home.

It is important that we recognize the many faces and voices influenced by traumatic childhood experiences and because trauma is defined by the person who experiences it, no single list can include all causes.

With that said, potentially traumatic events include:
•Psychological, physical, or sexual abuse
•Community or school violence
•Witnessing or experiencing domestic violence
•National disasters or terrorism
•Commercial sexual exploitation
•Sudden or violent loss of a loved one
•Refugee or war experiences
•Military family-related stressors (e.g., deployment, parental loss or injury)
•Physical or sexual assault
•Serious accidents or life-threatening illness

The national average of child abuse and neglect victims in 2013 was 679,000, or 9.1 victims per 1,000 children.

Each year, the number of youth requiring hospital treatment for physical assault-related injuries would fill every seat in 9 stadiums.

1 in 4 high school students was in at least 1 physical fight.

1 in 5 high school students was bullied at school; 1 in 6 experienced -.

19% of injured and 12% of physically ill youth have post-traumatic stress disorder.

More than half of U.S. families have been affected by some type of disaster (54%).

It’s important to recognize the signs of traumatic stress and its short and long-term impact.The signs of traumatic stress may be different in each child. Young children may react differently than older children.

Preschool Children
•Fear being separated from their parent/caregiver
•Cry or scream a lot
•Eat poorly or lose weight
•Have nightmares

Elementary School Children
•Become anxious or fearful
•Feel guilt or shame
•Have a hard time concentrating
•Have difficulty sleeping

Middle and High School Children
•Feel depressed or alone
•Develop eating disorders or self-harming behaviors
•Begin abusing alcohol or drugs
•Become involved in risky sexual behavior

The Body’s Alarm System

Everyone has an alarm system in their body that is designed to keep them safe from harm. When activated, this tool prepares the body to fight or run away. The alarm can be activated at any perceived sign of trouble and leave kids feeling scared, angry, irritable, or even withdrawn.

Healthy Steps Kids Can Take to Respond to the Alarm
•Recognize what activates the alarm and how their body reacts
•Decide whether there is real trouble and seek help from a trusted adult
•Practice deep breathing and other relaxation methods

Impact of Trauma

The impact of child traumatic stress can last well beyond childhood. In fact, research has shown that child trauma survivors may experience:
•Learning problems, including lower grades and more suspensions and expulsions
•Increased use of health and mental health services
•Increase involvement with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems


Tips for Talking With and Helping Children and Youth Cope After a Disaster or Traumatic Event: A Guide for Parents, Caregivers, and Teachers helps parents and teachers recognize common reactions young people of different age groups experience after experiencing trauma and offers tips for how to respond in a helpful way and when to seek support. Learn more about the guide.


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