Childhood Trauma: Common Reactions by Age

Young children, adolescents, teens and emerging adults experience traumatic events in different ways, as do adults. It is important that we understand what their experiences entailed and how they may be processing their reactions, emotionally, socially and psychologically, physically, as well. As we examine a child’s response to trauma, lets look at how it may manifest and how they react at different developmental stages.

Children, ages 3-5, react to trauma in the following ways:

  • Have changes in behavior[more temper tantrums, irritability, crying]
  • Become more clingy or withdrawn
  • Regress in skills
  • Repeatedly ask questions, as they may not fully understand what happened, including  experiences of loss
  • Demand more attention from others

Children ages 6-10, may react in the following ways:

  • Regress in skills
  • Demand more attention from others
  • Have attention  and/or concentration problems
  • Have more behavior problems
  • Have problems with homework or schoolwork
  • Feel helpless and guilty about what happened
  • Fear going to school

Older children, ages 11-19, may react in the following ways:

  • Withdraw into silence and isolation[including bouts of depression]
  • Become more irritable with peers and family and often starting arguments
  • Have feelings of shame and guilt about the event[s]
  • Express physical pains with no medical cause
  • Have a brief decline in school performance
  • Engage in high-risk behaviors like alcohol or drugs

Pay attention and Become a Good Listener

  • Find out what they know about the event-what are they hearing or seeing on TV, the Internet and from peers
  • Allow children and youth to ask questions, answering at a level they can understand
  • Most want to talk about their feelings. Let them talk, and listen to them.
  • Accept their feelings, letting them know that all feeling are okay and that crying is just one way of expressing them
  • Help them express their emotions through conversation, writing, drawing, music and body movement such as playing, running, dancing and yoga.

Actively Engage with Children and Youth

  • Balance talk of the event with the importance of school and home activities
  • Take a break and do something relaxing or fun together
  • Let them know that it’s ok to laugh even in the aftermath of a traumatic event
  • Let them know that you care about them
  • Provide extra attention and patience
  • Check back in on a regular basis.

Be careful not to pressure children to talk about the trauma or join in expressive activities related to the trauma. While most will easily talk about what happened, some may become more confused, frightened,  by talking about it, or even looking at any possibly or related news coverage of the event. Allow children to remove themselves from these activities and monitor them for signs of distress. Also, it may be best to limit media exposure about the event, especially with young children.

You are a role model for coping. So, it’s ok for children to see adults sad, crying or expressing other emotions, but try not to show intense emotions, and be sure they see you ‘pulling it together’ afterwards. Refrain from hitting, yelling or kicking furniture or  walls to release your stress and distress.

Monitor adult conversation as they may not understand it completely. We also must never hit, tease or isolate them. Remember, we are role models for coping.




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