Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Traumatic Events

Children and adolescents are exposed to a number of different traumatic events that can spark a lot of emotions and physical reactions. The effects of a traumatic event can last up into adulthood, causing several behavioral and mental health problems.  To learn more about signs and symptoms of trauma and how to treat it, continue reading. 

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Over two-thirds of children in the US will experience a traumatic event by the age of 16. And while difficult events may be seen as a part of life, many children are too young to fully grasp or cope with disasters and traumatic events when they happen. Even older children and teens may struggle with feelings and fears they’ve never experienced before.

That’s where the help of parents and caregivers plays an important role. Even if you don’t have all the answers regarding children and trauma, there are several ways you can offer your support and care—and a few strategies to avoid.

What Is Trauma?

Trauma is common, though often misunderstood. You may imagine trauma relating to a physical injury, but traumatic events can have a major impact on emotional and mental health too.

In short, trauma is an emotional response to a distressing event, including waves of shock, denial, pain, and confusion.

There are several types of events that may trigger a trauma response including:

Note that this list isn’t exhaustive; there are a variety of events that may feel traumatic, depending on the person.

And not all trauma is experienced firsthand. While some children may be direct survivors of a disaster or traumatic event, others can still experience trauma through watching or learning about traumatic events, such as on TV. A child may also experience trauma after a horrific event happened to a loved one or someone close to them.

Grief is also closely related to trauma. Grief may involve a death or any other significant loss. Even frequently moving schools or experiencing a first breakup can trigger feelings of grief. But the significance of these effects and how well the child copes can determine whether they’re traumatized after or able to bounce back quickly.

Understanding How Children Experience Trauma

Children experience scary events differently than adults. Many young people lack the perspective and ability to rationalize events in the way adults might be able to.

This can result in a lot of confusion and stress. Young children may become paranoid that the traumatic event can and will happen in other areas of their lives, and they may stop trusting the people around them. Older children may internalize their feelings, blaming themselves for what happened.

For many children, trauma responses stem from a feeling of helplessness or a lack of safety. While this is also the case for adults, children may be more vulnerable to feelings of helplessness or a lack of control due to their age. They may question if older people around them will help and protect them. Or they may hope that someone bigger than them will stop or even rewind the traumatic event.

And they may become fearful of a disaster or traumatic event happening again, even in seemingly safe and innocuous situations.

These types of questions and thoughts are often new for children who are facing major life stresses for the first time.

The good news is that most children do eventually bounce back from traumatic events. The majority of children and adolescents will be able to function again as normal in the months following, especially with the help of supportive adults and peers.

What Happens if Trauma Is Left Ignored or Untreated

While most children will recover from trauma, this may not be the case for those whose trauma is ignored or untreated.

Trauma can shape how children see the world, lasting months, years, and even the rest of their lives. And what they learn about trauma after it happens can set them up for success and stronger mental health later in life—or leave them unsure of how to cope when major stress strikes again.

Ignoring trauma can put children, and later adults, at risk for depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and even some health conditions. And, in some cases, trauma can lead to long-term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

What Is PTSD?

PTSD is often thought of as a soldier’s mental health condition, but it can affect anyone. Children, too, can suffer from PTSD.
PTSD is an anxiety disorder triggered by a traumatic event or experience. Not all children who have experienced trauma will develop PTSD, but there are some risk factors that may make it more likely including:

  • Being a firsthand survivor of the event or disaster
  • Growing up in an unstable or dangerous environment
  • Having family members with mental illness
  • A traumatic event that was severe or deeply life-changing
  • Repeated traumatic episodes or a traumatic event that lasted a long time
  • Trauma that coincided with another difficult or traumatic event

PTSD in childhood can have a long-lasting impact on development, especially if the child wasn’t offered treatment for PTSD.

But trauma in childhood or adolescence doesn’t have to linger indefinitely. One of the most important factors in how children cope with traumatic events is whether an adult recognized the signs of traumatic stress and responded appropriately. By becoming aware of what a child with trauma is going through and offering your support, you can make all the difference in how well they heal and recover.

Signs of Traumatic Stress

Whether a child is experiencing a short-term reaction to a traumatic event or they’re already at risk of PTSD, it helps to know the warning signs to look for.

Children may exhibit different behaviors and emotions after trauma, depending on their age. But even within the same age group, no two children are exactly alike. Each child and adolescent will respond to trauma in their own way.

And it’s important to note that there is no specific timeline for when trauma responses begin. Some children may show signs of being traumatized immediately after the event, while others take weeks or even months to show changes.

Here are some of the most common signs of traumatic stress in children according to age.

Babies and Toddlers

Babies and toddlers recognize trauma just like older children and adolescents do.

Some signs of traumatic stress in babies and toddlers include:

  • Excessive crying and fussing
  • Lack of appetite
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Becoming more passive
  • Responding to stimuli with physical tension or a worried/shocked facial expression
  • Changes in attachment, such as becoming more needy or detached from caregivers

Small Children

In children aged five and under, the signs of trauma may be more obvious than those seen in babies and toddlers. Children at this age have more ways to express themselves, though they still may not have the vocabulary or understanding of the traumatic events needed to clearly communicate their thoughts.

If a small child is traumatized, you can expect these signs:

  • Tantrums
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Regularly crying without a known cause
  • New fears (like a fear of monsters, people, or being alone at night)
  • “Accidents” and issues with toilet-training habits
  • Changes in appetite
  • Nightmares and night terrors
  • Jumpiness or being easily startled
  • Clinginess to parents or other adults
  • Reverting to “baby” behaviors such as sucking their thumb or talking like a baby

Older Elementary-Aged Children

Between the ages of six and 11, children will start to develop more nuanced responses to trauma, depending on their environment, personality, and other past experiences.

Signs of traumatic stress include:

  • Trouble eating or sleeping
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Expressing new fears and anxieties, even if they may not seem directly related to the traumatic event
  • Complete avoidance of the trauma and refusal to discuss or acknowledge it
  • Aggressive or rebellious behavior
  • Nightmares and night terrors
  • Jumpiness or being easily startled
  • New health issues such as headaches or stomachaches

Preteens and Adolescents

Once children reach their preteen and teen years, they may try to hide signs of traumatic stress, hoping to appear strong or unaffected.

Still, there are often signs of their inner feelings, such as:

  • Signs of anxiety and/or nervous behaviors (such as increased fidgeting, needing regular reassurance, or being easily agitated)
  • Complete avoidance of the trauma and refusal to discuss or acknowledge it
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Mood swings and increased anger or resentment
  • Trouble eating or sleeping
  • New health issues such as headaches or stomachaches
  • Rebellious or risky behavior (such as using drugs or alcohol)
  • Expressing guilt or self-loathing following the traumatic event

Helping Children Cope With Disaster and Traumatic Events

Whether they’re 8 months or 18 years old, children rely on trusted adults when coping with trauma. Even though adults may experience trauma too, children and adolescents look to the care and comfort of grownups for reassurance and a sense of normalcy.

If you want to know how to help a child with PTSD, there are several helpful tips that can be applied to all ages groups.

General Tips and Steps to Take

When supporting a child after a disaster or traumatic event, the first step is always to make sure that the child is in a safe place. They should be away from any harm, fed and sheltered, and in the company of loved ones. If the trauma involves injury or a threat of physical harm, contact a medical professional if needed.

If the child or adolescent is at risk of hurting themselves or you believe they may attempt suicide, contact emergency services immediately, and seek help from a reputable suicide hotline.

Once the child is safe, keep these pointers in mind when offering your help:

  • Allow children to take their time opening up about their experiences.
  • Don’t make any promises you can’t keep, but do assure the child that you will do everything you can to keep them protected.
  • Remind the child of safe places and people they can turn to.
  • If you’re a parent or caregiver also affected by the traumatic event, take time to process your own emotions and thoughts with the help of therapy.
  • Accept and validate their emotions, and don’t rush them to feel better or happy again.
  • Remember that children may view trauma through a different lens based on their culture or religion.
  • Maintain or re-establish routines as much as possible.
  • Ask questions to encourage the child to process their emotions, but accept if they give short answers or choose to not talk.
  • Keep in mind that, based on their age or experience level, children may not be able to understand the traumatic event to the extent that you can.

Because development changes significantly between toddler and teen years, some strategies may work for some age groups but not others. 

Here are ways to help children, depending on their age.

Babies and Toddlers

Babies and toddlers pick up more information than we may think. And even if they may not recall events that happened when they were two years or younger, some suggest that trauma is stored in the body even from infancy.
But there are ways to help babies and toddlers, even if they have a limited understanding of the events they’ve witnessed.

First, remove the child from stressors as much as possible. Ideally, they should be in a calm, comfortable environment.

Try to remain calm when caring for them. Your emotions can influence theirs, to some extent.

Make sure all their basic needs are met, including having a warm place to sleep, food, and milk. And regular physical touch like hugs and cuddles are especially important for little ones experiencing trauma.

Small Children

Small children are able to express trauma in more ways than babies, though they may still require time to process what happened.

Because of their age, use simple language when talking about what happened. If the child asks questions that you don’t have answers for, it’s okay to admit that you’re not sure. And instead of getting into details, focus conversations on learning about emotions instead. Use characters or visuals to help them identify their feelings. Then, whether they’re happy, mad, or sad, validate their feelings. Remind them that whatever they’re feeling is okay.

You can also turn to storybooks that gently discuss trauma or overcoming tough feelings in an age-appropriate way.

Aside from discussing trauma and emotions, it can be helpful to incorporate play back into a child’s daily life. Play games at home, or enroll the child in dance or art classes for fun. But don’t be alarmed if the child reenacts the traumatic event during playtime. This is part of their way of processing and understanding what happened.

Finally, be sure to stick to routines, and be extra supportive, especially during times like school send-offs or bedtime. Understand that the child may be anxious and fearful of being separated from parents or caregivers.

Older Elementary-Aged Children

Between the ages of six and 11, children tend to prefer more honest and direct conversations about traumatic events. They’ll likely have questions, and they trust that you’ll provide them with real answers. You don’t have to simplify your language the way you might with toddlers, and you don’t need to completely shield children from the event.

However, you should also do what you can to minimize additional trauma, including creating a safe routine to help the child cope. Keep the child engaged in schoolwork, after-school activities, and time with friends.

Make sure their basic needs are met, and listen when they feel ready to talk. If they refuse to open up, that’s okay. Still, you can initiate a conversation by acknowledging what happened and how difficult it was. They may feel comfortable opening up at this point, or they may still need more time to think over their feelings.

Preteens and Adolescents

When helping older children through trauma, you might feel tempted to treat them like an adult. And while it is important to have mature, age-appropriate conversations, it’s still best to be a supportive adult they can look up to.

If you were also impacted by the traumatic event, do not unload your thoughts and fears on older children and adolescents. However, it is okay to express that you share their feelings. In fact, this may help them feel more comfortable opening up about what they’re going through.

Still, some adolescents may not want to talk about the traumatic experience. Don’t pressure a child who refuses to talk.

Instead, it can be helpful to find an alternative safe space for them to process their thoughts and feelings. Give them an age-appropriate book on dealing with trauma, and encourage them to journal privately.

Try to cut down their responsibilities to just the basics. Many preteens and adolescents have numerous tests, clubs, and other responsibilities, which may be overwhelming during stressful times. Motivate them to go to school and study when they can, but remove chores and other responsibilities when possible.

Things to Avoid When Assisting Children With Trauma

Sometimes, well-intentioned words or actions may not be as helpful as you had hoped. It’s normal to make mistakes and not always have the perfect response when helping a child after a traumatic event. But there are few things to avoid in order to help the child better cope and recover.

It’s important to never force a child or adolescent to talk before they’re ready. Avoid prying for details or pressuring them to say more than they’re comfortable saying.

Also avoid correcting their emotions or encouraging them to feel differently. You may make comments like, “It’s okay, don’t worry,” but many children benefit from learning that it’s okay to sometimes be not okay.

And while it may be difficult at first, refrain from punishing or getting angry over changes in behavior. For example, if your five-year-old begins wetting the bed at night after the traumatic event, don’t yell at them, even if they’ve already learned nighttime toilet training. Be patient, and remember that these changes are likely only temporary.

When to Seek Professional Help

There are several ways to help a child who is struggling with traumatic stress. But in some cases, professional help is necessary.

If you feel that your own experience or expertise isn’t enough to support the child, don’t hesitate to reach out to mental health experts. Whether you’re a parent, guardian, or another adult who cares, it’s okay if you don’t have all the resources necessary to support child trauma. A therapist or mental health professional has the special training needed to help the child recover and learn healthy coping strategies.

If you’re not sure if the child would benefit from professional treatment, look to their behavior for any changes. Signs of great distress include paranoia, panic attacks, changes in speech or language, and trouble with daily functioning.

Also pay careful attention if they express a desire to hurt themselves or others. Never ignore threats of harm, drastic and unpredictable emotional reactions, suicidal ideation, or any dangerous or potentially dangerous behaviors.

Often, children do ask for help, though they may not do it in the way you’re expecting. Instead, they may act out or express depressive or anxious thoughts and feelings. Pay attention to these cues, and respond by seeking professional help.

Children and Trauma: What You Can Do to Help

Trauma can affect children and people of all ages, though trauma impacts children differently than it does adults.

Without some of the reasoning skills and coping strategies learned later in life, children need the help of trusted adults to help them get through tough times.

But that doesn’t mean you must be an expert on children and trauma. There are many ways you can make a difference, from offering a helping hand to lending a listening ear. Still, there are times when professional mental health treatment is necessary to help the child overcome traumatic stress.

Contact our expert team today to find out how our program can help treat PTSD and other disorders related to trauma. We’re here and ready to help with an effective and personalized plan for your child.


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