Children can react to traumatic events in some very unique ways. We will discuss three main categories: mental, physical, and emotional reactions.
Before looking through them, think about ways you have seen children react to stressful or traumatic events.
As a group or individual, take a moment to write down a few mental, physical, and emotional reactions to trauma that you have seen in children.
Mental effects often manifest as anxiety or other stress symptoms. Below, we list common mental effects that can manifest as a reaction to stress or trauma. Some of these are not mental symptoms specifically, but they manifest as a result of emotional turmoil that the child does not necessarily know how to cope with in any other way.
A common stress reaction for children is to be overly attached to their caregivers. They can appear almost as if they are scared their caregiver will disappear. A child will often not let their caregiver out of their sight. They may insist on being held or picked up to reassure themselves that their caregiver is still there.
Poor School Performance
Trauma affects every aspect of our lives, and school comes with an entire load of stressors and interactions. When a child is already coping with a traumatic event, the load that school places on them might be too heavy. Their grades may begin to drop. Since their brain is so busy with extra stress, it is hard for them to squeeze in the extra material that school places there. They may begin failing in classes they used to excel. They may begin acting out in class and begin disrupting the classroom environment. Trauma can often bleed into our personal lives if ignored, and school is one of the first places in a child’s life where this can be seen.
Lack of Focus
Stress takes up a lot of space in our brains. When we add more stress on top of our daily stressors, the result can be a lack of attention or focus. This can manifest as inattention in school as well as at home. A child may lose interest in games or toys they used to play with all the time. They also may experience issues listening to caregivers in their homes.
Increased responsibility seems like a positive thing. Many adults view this as growth and upward movement. This may be a correct assumption in a situation where it happens gradually. However, it can be a trauma response when it happens all at once, and the child is young. This stress response is common in situations where either one or both primary caregivers cannot take care of the child actively. So the child takes on the responsibility of caring for themselves. This can become an issue if it continues for a long period of time and the child forgets to be a child. The years of play and childlike behavior are essential for exploring the world, interacting with other people, and learning how to be a person. If a child is deprived of that because of increased levels of responsibility, it can have long-lasting impacts on adulthood.
Agitation and aggressive behavior can both be stress responses. Aggression usually comes from an inability to express emotions in any other way. They cannot express their trauma, so they react with anger instead. It can also be anger at what happened to them. It can manifest in lashing out at peers and family or in overreactions to small problems.
Children can also be generally agitated. They might be upset easily, throw tantrums about slight changes in routine, or have other behavioral issues. Many emotional responses to stress and trauma stem from an inability to articulate their feelings or feelings of helplessness in their situation.
In addition, children can also have physical reactions and responses to trauma. These can be embarrassing for them to talk about, and can often make them uncomfortable. It is important to note that none of these lists are universally applicable. A child may not show any of these symptoms after a traumatic event, or they could experience symptoms not on these lists.
This falls in the middle ground between mental and physical reactions. Often this is the physical result of mental turmoil. The child does not know how to articulate their mental struggles, so the result is that they take it out on their own bodies.
Self-harm can take many forms aside from the ones specifically discussed. It can involve cutting, burning, and even things such as excessively working out, withholding food from themselves, and many other abnormal behaviors.
It is important to pay attention to behaviors that seem abnormal after a traumatic event because they can often be signals that something is wrong.
When a child is stressed, it is not abnormal to regress into lower developmental behaviors. This could include but is not limited to: sucking thumbs, wetting the bed, reverting back to using pacifiers, or maybe redeveloping an attachment to a stuffed animal or blanket they had when they were little.
Regressive behavior is usually comforting for the child as they navigate trauma. It allows them to feel safe in environments that feel unsafe.
In the case of extreme stress, a child might experience nightmares or flashbacks to the event. They may happen in the middle fo the day when the child is thinking about the event, or they can happen at night when their mind starts to calm down and process the day’s events. These types of events usually occur when children allow their brains to slow down. They come out of their fight-or-flight mode and their brain can begin to understand what happened to them. When we fall asleep, our brain has the time to catch up with the events of the day. The slowing down of the brain can lead to nightmares as the childs brain focuses on the traumatic event.
Loss of appetite and overeating are both stress reactions. Some people lose their appetite and, as a result, lose weight because their bodies are not telling them when they are hungry.
Overeating is on the other side of the spectrum. Food can be a comfort in a stressful situation for some people, so they overeat as an attempt to reduce the stress.
Physical bodily reactions to stress are common in all ages. Some people break out in hives, stress acne across the face, stomach pains from anxiety, and headaches are all common physical reactions.
These symptoms usually go away when the stress is reduced. However, these can be confounding reactions to medical staff and caregivers who do not know what is causing the reactions.
Stress causes us to fall out of our normal, habitual behaviors. Things we have done at the same time for years can fall to the side as our brain simultaneously tries to cope with trauma and keep us alive. Children may forget to brush their teeth, do their laundry, take showers, and eat regularly. Trauma takes up all of our brain power which makes it easy for other things to fall to the side.
Now we will examine some common emotional signs of stress or trauma. If these behaviors are out of the ordinary for the child, it can be a sign of larger underlying issues. Many of these are common reactions to stress that usually dissipate once the stressor is removed or the traumatic event has been processed. There is not necessarily a cure for traumatic events. However, there are ways to help a child cope and give them resources to untangle emotions and behaviors that can surround trauma.
Anxiety and fear are some of the most common reactions to stress. This can manifest in many different ways. The child can become clingy to their caregiver, they may be afraid to do basic routines which they previously had no problem with, or they might struggle with independence immediately following a traumatic event.
Anger and rage are also common for children. They might be angry because of a feeling of helplessness. They could lash out as a means of regaining control. They could even be angry because they do not have the vocabulary to express their feelings in any other way.
Depression in children looks a little different compared to depression in adults. It usually manifests in withdrawal. Outgoing kids can withdraw from their friends and isolate themselves. Introverted kids may begin cutting themselves off more than normal and retreating from their family.
When children are stressed or dealing with trauma, it may manifest in apathy. They might have an outlook that states, “I don’t care what happens anymore”. Rather than trying to sort out the trauma, they are responding by closing down. It can almost be a mental protection to avoid any further hurt. Instead of allowing themselves to care, they say that they don’t to prevent themselves from being hurt when the thing they care about goes away.
Survivor’s Guilt is more common in older children who survive something others didn’t, or maybe others were injured, and the child was fine. This is accompanied by the mindset that “it should have been me” or “I should have done more.” Survivors’ guilt needs to be navigated very carefully because it can make people want to pull into themselves and withdraw.
There are three questions to ask yourself while examining a child’s behavior after trauma.
The First Question:
Is this a new behavior?
If any behaviors above are normal for the child, they are probably not a trauma response. When we look at trauma responses, we want to focus on unique or abnormal behavior. If the child normally does not have much appetite, it is most likely not a response to the trauma and instead is just carrying on with normal life. If you aren’t familiar with the child, this is a question to ask the caregivers or people who are more familiar with the child.
The Second Question:
What happened that preceded this behavior?
What was the traumatic event that triggered this behavior? This question is more difficult to get an answer. If you are familiar with the child, you might already know, but if you are unfamiliar, you need to ask more questions. The child might not want to talk about the traumatic event, so you might need to go to the primary caregiver or parent and see if they know. Sometimes parents and caregivers are excluded from their child’s lives, so the next step is to go to the child’s friends. Even if you only get vague details about the event, having some context can allow you to navigate the situation correctly.
The Third Question:
How might the child have perceived the event?
When we discussed the example in the last lesson, we mentioned that sometimes children perceive events as more traumatic than how adults perceive them. If the event seems small in your perception, but the child is displaying stress responses, they probably perceived it differently than you did. Remember that their perception of the event is what causes them to experience stress. Look for how the preceding event and the behaviors could be linked.