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Traumatic Events in a Child’s World

As parents and caregivers, we can try until the point of exhaustion and still not always protect children from frightening and traumatizing events. Even when children appear to be totally within our control, sometimes life can bring forth challenges that may make parents powerless to keep them safe. Studies (PDF 163KB) have demonstrated that childhood exposure to traumatic events is a major public health problem in the United States. While exposure to traumatic events early in life can lead to a variety of negative effects throughout childhood and into adulthood, the right support system from families, caregivers, and the community can help children bounce back from traumatic events.

A traumatic event is a sudden and unexpected occurrence that causes intense fear and may involve a threat of physical harm or actual physical harm. Trauma and trauma-caused fear can have both short-term and, sometimes, long-term emotional, physical, and academic consequences for young children.

Different Reactions and Feelings
A variety of different types of experiences may be considered traumatic. Traumatic experiences may include natural disasters such as  hurricanes, or tornadoes, as well as fire, war, death of a loved one, physical and emotional abuse and neglect,  car accident, fall, near-drowning, poisoning, or dog attack. Hospitalization, medical procedures, and illness also may have a traumatic effect on a child.

Minor stresses are normal in childhood and are in fact necessary for personal development as children learn how to cope with everyday stressors. Traumatic experiences, on the other hand, generate a type of stress called toxic stress (PDF 1.02MB), which children simply cannot handle alone. A threat to the body―real or imagined―produces toxic stress and forces the body to release hormones that create adverse and permanent changes to a young child’s developing brain. If exposure to stress hormones lasts too long, it can also weaken a child’s immune system by increasing the chances of acquiring a host of infections and chronic health problems. What children hear, see, and feel during a traumatic event can create strong memories. These memories may return as nightmares or be triggered by similar sensory experiences, forcing an individual to relive an event over and over again. Further adding to the problem, many times young children don’t always know why something occurred and they may feel that they did something to cause the traumatic event or somehow that they could have prevented the event from happening. If not treated, childhood stress (PDF 1.02MB) can lead to health problems later in life, including alcoholism, depression, eating disorders, heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases.

Signs of Short and Long-Term Effects
Some of the short-term impacts of trauma to young children may include a regression to infantile behavior, such as thumb-sucking and bedwetting. Traumatic events can also lead to mood disorders, such as temper tantrums, clingy behavior, and changes in eating and sleeping patterns. The long-term effects of trauma may include challenges to a child’s self-worth, behavior, cognitive development, and even biological changes—all of which can have a negative impact on school attendance and academic achievement.

Fostering Protective Factors
Parents and caregivers play a pivotal role in buffering the impact of trauma and increasing resiliency for children exposed to traumatic events. Children will be better able to manage during stressful times when protective factors are present. Studies on resilience in children have demonstrated that an essential protective factor for children is the reliable presence of a positive, caring, and protective parent/caregiver, who can help shield their children against adverse experiences. Moreover, parents and caregivers can be a consistent resource for their children by encouraging them to talk about the experiences, maintaining social connections, and by offering concrete support in times of need. The essential job of parents and caregivers is to provide reassurance to their children that the adults in their life are working to keep them safe.

Tips for Encouraging Parents To Build Resilience in Children (PDF 292KB)
Every day, parents have a myriad of opportunities to build their children’s resilience by

  • Teaching self-care (PDF 2.65MB)Take the opportunity to teach children good habits, including a healthy diet, exercise, making good choices, and adequate resting and sleeping practice.
  • Emphasizing the positive—Remember to celebrate important positive events with family and friends. Acknowledge holidays and family traditions by singing songs with children, drawing pictures, and looking at family photographs together.  
  • Reading together—Sharing books and stories has exponential benefits for children and parents, including language development and improved literacy. Reading encourages learning, creates routines, and fosters a love of discovery through books. Additionally, books are great tools that can open dialogue and support conversations about difficult events experienced by the child.
  • Encouraging social skills—Allow time for play dates and promote positive group activities such as dance, theater, music, art, sports, or clubs.
  • Maintaining a daily routine—Knowing what to expect can be comforting to children. Keeping a routine and following simple daily rituals, such as reading together at bedtime and having family dinner time, can be reassuring.
  • Fostering positive self-esteemIt is vital to focus on and build upon strengths. Parents can help their children to trust themselves and encourage them to step out of their comfort zone by trying new activities. Always compliment your children’s successes and help them understand they can learn from hardships. Encourage your children to try again even if they fail at first. When they eventually succeed, they will feel even better knowing it took time to achieve their goal.
  • Practicing self-reflection—Taking time to reflect on life is one of the most valuable skills for both parents and children. Self-reflection allows one to gain perspective and, thus, to produce a solution-based plan. Some ways to develop self-reflection include keeping a journal, talking with others about life events, taking photos, creating artwork, making music, exercising, and sharing those art forms with family and friends.

With the right support, caring adults can guide children to recover from traumatic events by re-establishing a sense of well-being and obtaining treatment and other services if needed.

Family Activity: I Feel Many Different Ways

Educator Activity: Chase Away the Boogeyman!

Quiz for Parents: Dealing With Trauma


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

  • “Helping Children and Youth Who Have Experienced Traumatic Events” (PDF 163KB) discusses  the prevalence of exposure to traumatic events among children and youth studied in two initiatives of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the problems that trauma can cause, and available treatment that can help children and youth recover.

National Child Traumatic Stress Network

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families

Real WarriorsReal Battles                                                                                                              

Defense Centers of Excellence

National Association for the Education of Young Children

American Art Therapy Association (PDF 240KB)

  • Provides parents with resources and tools for children to receive timely, appropriate services that promote effective learning, social interaction, self-esteem, coping, and resilience.

American Dance Therapy Association

  • Gives parents resources and tools for children to use dance/movement therapy to further the emotional, cognitive, physical, and social integration of the individual with a wide range of psychological disorders to achieve greater expressions.

American Music Therapy Association

  • Gives parents tips on how children can use music as a coping mechanism and allow music to form a part of their world.

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Updated on 5/9/2012