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Protecting Childhood: Understanding Traumatic Stress and its Impact on Children’s Mental Health

The safety of children and teens is of the utmost importance to parents, caregivers, and community members. Caregivers often take extraordinary measures to ensure the security of kids in their care and do the best they can to protect children and teens from experiencing stressful events. Regardless of caregivers' best intentions, and greatest efforts, it’s impossible to guarantee that those they care for will always be out of harm’s way.

While it can be scary to live with this knowledge, it’s important that caregivers best prepare for the possibility of their child experiencing a stressful event so that they can support them even in the worst-case scenario.

Can kids and teens experience trauma?

Trauma is the experience of an event, or events, where a person experiences a threat to their life, their sense of safety in their body, or a threat to the life of a caregiver or a family member.

Children and teens can experience traumatic events in the same way that adults can. When they experience a traumatic event, it means they are faced with very real safety concerns. These dangerous events can overwhelm their ability to regulate emotions, and kids who have experienced traumatic events are often on guard, looking out for additional threats to safety.

What kinds of events can be traumatic for kids and teens?

Even though we all work hard to keep kids in our homes and communities safe, they may still experience dangerous events both from within and outside the family.

Some examples of traumatic events are natural disasters, car accidents, school shootings, community violence, domestic violence in the home, physical or sexual abuse, serious accidents or illness for themselves or family members, the loss of a loved one, military-family related stressors, witnessing substance abuse, and neglect.

These kinds of events all threaten the life of the individual or those around them and can be impactful for children.

What is traumatic stress, and what does that look like?

All people have a built-in system that we call the “stress response.” Our bodies have an alarm system that is activated when we feel stress or a sense of danger. When we are faced with danger, our heart rate goes up, we breathe faster, and we may feel a sense of fear. In a circumstance of normal stress, these physical symptoms will subside once the threat is gone. This is one of the amazing ways our mind and body work together to keep us safe in the face of danger.

When experiencing a traumatic event, our stress response involves both physical and emotional sensations that are so strong we feel “frozen” and too overwhelmed to re-establish a sense of calm. We become so affected by these stress responses that our body shuts down even when there is no threat of danger.

The good news is that kids are resilient. A lot of kids experience bad things, and don’t have lasting trauma symptoms. All kids experience and respond to trauma in different ways depending on their age, environment, and the event they experienced. Here are some common signs and symptoms of lasting traumatic stress at different developmental stages.

Preschool Children:

  • Fear of separating from caregivers
  • Crying or screaming a lot
  • Eating poorly or losing weight
  • Having nightmares
  • Sexualized or aggressive behavior
  • Irritability

Elementary School Children:

  • Becoming anxious or fearful
  • Feeling guilt or shame
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Sexualized or aggressive behavior
  • Irritability
  • Social problems with peers

Middle and High School Children:

  • Feeling depressed or alone
  • Developing eating disorders
  • Self-harm behaviors
  • Abusing alcohol or drugs
  • Risk sexual behavior
  • Social problems with peers

If you notice that your child is experiencing a group of these symptoms, it may be time to talk to a mental health professional. While the presence of one or a few of these symptoms does not mean that your child has experienced a traumatic event, a mental health professional will help you identify what is going on for your child and how you can best support them moving forward.

Want to learn more?

Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development. (n.d.). Recognizing and Addressing Trauma in Infants, Young Children, and their Families. Types of Traumatic Experiences- Center for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation.
Kooij, L. H., van der Pol, T. M., Daams, J. G., Hein, I. M., & Lindauer, R. J. L. (2022). Common elements of evidence-based trauma therapy for children and adolescents. European journal of psychotraumatology, 13(1), 2079845.
Oseldman. (2018, May 25). Trauma Types. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
Peterson, S. (2018, August 14). Interventions. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
Peterson, S. (2023, September 19). About child trauma. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
Vanderzee, K. L., Sigel, B. A., Pemberton, J. R., & John, S. G. (2018). Treatments for Early Childhood Trauma: Decision Considerations for Clinicians. Journal of child & adolescent trauma, 12(4), 515–528.