Childhood trauma – April 12 2019

Childhood trauma: 30+ signs your child is trying to cope

Spot the signs of childhood trauma.

Has your child gone through a traumatic physical, psychological or emotional experience? 

Sometimes it can be hard to tell whether a child is simply upset by something that happened or if they are traumatized. We all experience feelings of stress—but the difference between reactions to our everyday stressors and a child’s traumatic stress is that reactions to trauma interfere with daily life, impact the ability to function and affect interactions with others.

Click here to learn more about childhood trauma and how SOS Children’s Villages helps vulnerable children recover.

The effects of trauma manifest differently from child to child, and they vary based on age and developmental level. However, a general sign that your child is suffering from traumatic stress is that they may act in a way that is uncharacteristic for him or her. Sometimes, signs may not manifest at all, or they may develop very gradually. As a parent, you may not be aware of how serious the reasons are behind your child’s reaction.

You know your child better than anyone else does. You are the best judge to determine if something feels ‘off.’ If you sense that your child is not acting in a manner that’s typical for them, trust your intuition.

Children may exhibit signs of traumatic stress if they endure experiences like:

  • - Physical, sexual, verbal or emotional abuse (including human trafficking)
  • - Abandonment, neglect or disorganized attachment
  • - Domestic violence
  • - Violence in the child’s community (ex: school shootings or even mass casualty events in the news)
  • - Loss of a loved one (Learn more about how to help your child heal after loss)
  • - Change in caregivers
  • - Serious accidents (ex: car accidents)
  • - Medical diagnoses, events and life-threatening illnesses
  • - Natural disasters (ex: hurricanes, earthquakes or tsunamis)
  • - Exposure to substance abuse (self or other)
  • - War, terrorism and refugee experiences (including torture)
  • - Military-related incidents or stress (ex: deployment of a parent)
  • - Absent parent
  • - Bullying
  • - Major life changes (ex: moving or starting at a new school)

Trauma can include a variety of responses and behavioral changes, such as:

  • - Intense and ongoing emotional upset, including feelings of fear, terror or helplessness
  • - Anxiety or being in a state of constant alert
  • - Depression
  • - Nightmares or trouble sleeping
  • - Changes in eating habits or loss of appetite
  • - Trouble forming attachments or relationships
  • - Difficulty trusting you or others
  • - Difficulty concentrating or paying attention
  • - Regression or loss of skills the child had previously mastered
  • - Poor academic performance
  • - Aches and pains
  • - Pounding heart
  • - Vomiting
  • - Incontinence (loss of bladder or bowel control, including enuresis [bed-wetting])
  • - Substance use/abuse (drugs or alcohol)
  • - Engaging in sexual activity/promiscuity
  • - Risky behavior

Many of these reactions can apply to children of any age (for instance, regardless of developmental stage, a child can suffer from nightmares, feel fearful or exhibit changes in eating habits).

However, you may notice these common signs of traumatic stress based on your child’s age:

Very young children (preschool)

Young children (elementary school)

Adolescents (middle school and high school)

Cry and/or scream more than typical for the child

Feel shame or guilt

Feel depressed

Feel helpless or timid

Feel fear or anxiety

Feel alone, different from everyone else or like they’re “going crazy”

Develop new fears, including anxiety when separated from a parent or caregiver

Become clingy to adults they trust, like a parent or teacher

Avoid going to places that bring up memories of their trauma

Experience nightmares

Have trouble sleeping

Have trouble sleeping

Wet the bed

Have difficulty concentrating

Risk-taking behavior

Develop poor eating habits, which can result in loss of weight

Worry excessively about their own safety or the safety of others

Develop eating disorders

Revert to using “baby talk”

Startle easily

Engage in self-harming behaviors (ex: cutting, suicidal tendencies)

Recreate the traumatic experience while playing

Repeatedly tell people about the traumatic experience

Talk about the traumatic experience in detail

Ask questions about death

Feel afraid that the traumatic experience will happen again

Use or abuse drugs or alcohol

Display stunted developmental growth

Feel upset by minor injuries like bumps or bruises

Become sexually active/promiscuous

 

Decline in school performance

Say they don’t have feelings about the traumatic  experience

 

Wondering how soon after a potentially traumatic experience your child would start to show these signs? Some children start exhibiting signs of traumatic stress immediately after the impactful event; for others, the signs are noticeable weeks or even months later. Or, symptoms may manifest when your child enters a close relationship with another person. Your child’s behavioral changes may last for days, weeks, months or even years.

But what’s important to remember is that these reactions are normal and expected after a child survives a traumatic experience. No matter what your child has been through, they have the potential for growth, development, healing and extraordinary resilience. And you’re here to help them cope, navigate the healing process and emerge happier and healthier on the other side. You’re in this together.

You can help guide your child’s recovery with:

Trauma therapy experts

Every day, SOS Children’s Villages helps children overcome the trauma they’ve experienced prior to being in our care, including the loss of their parents and families. We offer mental health programs and services to children, families and communities, and we train SOS mothers and caregivers to provide critical help to children who may have been exposed to traumatic experiences. We also empower children to cope with their anguish through specialized trauma recovery techniques and psychological support from SOS experts in child care and mental health. For instance, our aid program in Iraq provides trauma treatment and play therapy activities for children impacted by local conflict. With seven decades of experience, SOS Children’s Villages works in 135 countries to ensure that all children in our programs receive appropriate care, stimulation and support to overcome traumas from their past—and build resilience and post-traumatic growth.

Learn more about how we help children around the world recover from trauma.
Here’s how you can help your own children process their stress, trauma and loss.