How to Identify if a Child Has Been Traumatized by an Event

Four Methods:Understanding TraumaNoticing Physical SymptomsNoticing Psychological SymptomsMoving Forward

Children who have experienced an initial traumatic event before they turn 11 years of age are three times more likely to develop psychological symptoms than children who experience their first trauma as a teenager or as an adult later on.


While a traumatic experience can damage a child if left unspoken about and untreated, the good news is that children are better able to cope with a traumatic event if they receive support from parents and other trusted adults they rely upon such as family members, friends, teachers and so forth.


Helping a child through a traumatic experience is important for building a child's resilience (ability to cope), so that they learn how to face what has happened, grieve over it, then put their life back together again and move forward.


Help for children who have experienced a traumatic event should commence as soon as possible after the event has occurred. As such, it is important to identify signs of trauma in a child as well as to presume nothing from their silence but to seek to ensure that they are both reassured and supported.

Method 1
Understanding Trauma

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    Be aware of what can be considered a traumatic experience for a child. A traumatic experience is one that terrifies or shocks the child and may have felt life-threatening (whether real or perceived) and caused the child to feel extremely vulnerable. Potentially traumatizing events include...[1]
    • Natural disasters
    • Vehicle accidents and other accidents
    • Neglect
    • Verbal, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
    • Rape
    • War
    • Violent bullying or victimization
    • Compliance therapy,[2] restraint, and seclusion[3]
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    Recognize that different people respond to trauma differently. If two children go through the same experience, they may have different symptoms or different severity of trauma. What is traumatizing to one child may simply be upsetting to another.
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    Consider signs of trauma in parents and other loved ones close to the child. A parent suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder can also be a trigger for a child to develop a traumatized response. A child may even react more strongly to trauma because adults around them have done so, especially parents because they're so attuned to them.[4]

Method 2
Noticing Physical Symptoms

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    Watch for personality shifts. Compare how the child acts now to how the child acted before the trauma. If you see extreme behavior, or a noticeable change from their normal behavior, then something is probably wrong.
    • A child may seem to develop a new personality (e.g. a confident girl turning into a shaky people-pleaser overnight), or may switch between several strong moods (e.g. a boy who flip flops between withdrawn and aggressive).
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    Consider how easily the child becomes upset. A traumatized child may cry and whine over relatively small things that wouldn't have bothered them so much before.
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    Watch for regression. The child may revert to younger behavior, such as thumb-sucking and wetting the bed. This is especially common in cases of sexual abuse and compliance therapies for autism, but can be seen in other forms of trauma as well.
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    Notice signs of passivity and compliance. Traumatized children, especially those harmed by an adult, may attempt to appease adults or avoid angering them. You may notice avoidance of attention, complete compliance, and/or overachieving to turn into a "perfect" child.
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    Look for anger and aggression. Traumatized children may act out, become frustrated easily, and start throwing more temper tantrums. They may even become aggressive towards others.
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    Observe symptoms of illness, such as headaches, vomiting or fever. These symptoms may worsen when the child must do something related to the trauma (e.g. going to school after abuse at school), or when the child is stressed.

Method 3
Noticing Psychological Symptoms

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    Look for any of the following psychological signs in a child. A traumatized child may exhibit any or all of these behaviors after a disaster:
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    Watch for clinging to people or objects. The child may feel lost without a person they trust, or a favorite object like a toy, blanket, or stuffed animal. A traumatized child may become extremely upset if this person or object is not with them, because they feel unsafe.
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    Notice nighttime fears. They may be afraid to sleep alone at night, with the light off, to sleep in their own room, or have nightmares, night terrors or bad dreams.
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    Notice if the child keeps asking if the event will reoccur.
    • Some children may obsess over preventing the event in the future, such as constantly checking the smoke alarm after a house fire. This may turn into Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
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    Consider how much the child trusts adults. After all, their adults were not able to control the disaster, so they reason "who can?" and decide that nobody can keep them safe. Children abused by an adult may be afraid of other adults, especially adults who look similar (e.g. a small girl hurt by a tall, blond man may be afraid of her uncle because he is tall and blond).
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    See if the child is afraid of certain places. For example, a child abused by a therapist may scream and cry if they see the therapy building, and may panic if they even hear the word "therapy." Some children may be able to tolerate it with help from a loved one or security object, but be unable to bear being left there alone.
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    Watch for guilt or shame. The child may blame themselves for the traumatic event because of something they did, said, or thought.
    • Fears are not always rational. The child may blame themselves for a situation in which they did nothing wrong, and could not have made things any better.
    • This may lead to obsessive-compulsive behavior. For example, maybe a boy and his sister were playing in the dirt when the traumatic event happened, and now he feels the need to keep everyone perfectly clean and away from dirt.
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    Notice how the child interacts with other children. A traumatized child may feel alienated, and may be uncertain how to interact normally with others, or not interested.
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    Pay attention if the child becomes startled more easily or afraid of sounds that didn't scare them before. A child may become afraid of wind, rain or sudden loud noises;
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    Notice fears that they report. The child may talk about worries that their family will not be safe, or will not have anywhere to live. A traumatized child may obsess over their family's safety and try to protect their family.
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    Watch for thoughts of self harm or suicide. A suicidal child may start talking a lot about death.
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    A psychologist or psychiatrist might see signs of anxiety, depression or fearlessness in the child.

Method 4
Moving Forward

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    Be aware that even if a child does not display any or a few of these symptoms, that doesn't mean they're coping. A child can be impacted by a traumatic event but keep it bottled up inside out of a misguided need to be strong for mom or courageous for dad, etc.
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    Assume that a child who has been part of a traumatic event needs to be cared for with extra attention to helping them through the event.
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    Some children may not give evidence for being upset for several weeks or even months. Avoid rushing a child to explore and express their feelings. It can take time for some children to process what has happened.
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    Seek help as soon as possible. The responses, reactions and abilities of those immediately responsible for a child influence the child's ability to cope with a traumatic occurrence.
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    While you can and should talk to your child about their feelings and make it clear that you're available to talk at any time, it can be much more helpful to have professional help assist you.
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    The types of therapy likely to assist recovery for your child include psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, cognitive-behavioral therapy, hypnotherapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).
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    Don't try to cope alone. While it is only natural for you to want to try to be the support for your child, going it alone will make it harder on you, especially if you have also experienced the traumatic event.
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    Encourage your child's interaction with others. Family members, friends, therapists, teachers, and others can all support your child and your family in coping with the aftermath of the traumatic event. You are not alone, and neither is your child.
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    Support your child's health. You can help a great deal by seeking to restore a routine as soon as possible, continuing to feed your child a nutritious diet and helping your child maintain play and exercise schedules that ensure connections with others of their own age and body movement for good health.
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    Be available for your children and try to stay focused about what matters in the now in their presence, rather than ruminating on the past event.

Tips

  • If you're trying to help a child through a traumatic experience, it can be helpful to read more about how trauma affects children. Read books and online information from government or trusted medical sites that explains more fully what your child is going through and what you can do to help restore their general well-being.
  • A child unable to bounce back from a traumatic event can develop differently from the way they were developing prior to the event. The areas in the mind responsible for emotional and language processing and memory are particularly hard hit as a result of trauma and changes to these areas of the brain can be long-lasting and can soon impact schoolwork, play and friendships.
  • Drawing and writing can be very therapeutic means for children to express their vulnerability, unhappiness and memories of the event. While a professional may direct these as a response, you can encourage a child to use these means as a form of expressing feelings at any time. Stories about child survivors of traumatic events and how they coped with difficult situations can also be helpful.

Warnings

  • If a child experiences any of these symptoms and and they are ignored, the child may experience psychological problems.
  • If the trauma is caused by experiences that are continuing to happen, such as abuse, immediately remove the child from the source of the abuse and get help and distance from the abuse.
  • Do not become angry at new bad behaviors that are likely to be a symptom of the traumatic experience, the child can't help it. Find the root of the bad behaviors that are caused by the traumatic event and work through them. Be especially careful and sensitive to behaviors involving sleeping and crying (and don't become angry when the child has excessive difficulty sleeping or trouble stopping themselves from crying.)

Things You'll Need

  • Drawing and writing items for self-expression

Sources and Citations

  • FEMA for Kids: After a Disaster – research source
  • Disaster Training International, New York, NY – research source
  • Dr Pamela Stephenson Connolly, Head Case: Treat Yourself to Better Mental Health, (2007), ISBN 978-0-7553-1721-9 – research source
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