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Childhood trauma: Helping your child heal and thrive

Are you concerned that your child has suffered physical, psychological or emotional trauma? We’re here to help. 

With 70 years of experience informing our work, SOS Children’s Villages focuses on strengthening vulnerable children every day. Many children in our care have suffered past trauma, including the loss of parental protection. Regardless of prior traumatic experiences, we believe that every child has the potential for growth, development, healing and extraordinary resilience.  

Below, you’ll find information and tips for you to help your own children process their trauma—and to guide them toward a happier, healthier future.  

Understanding childhood trauma 

A trauma occurs when a child feels intensely threatened, scared or shaken up by an event that happens to the child or to a loved one, while experiencing feelings of helplessness and loss of control. Whether it’s an emotional trauma or psychological trauma (ex: losing a loved one) or a physical trauma (ex: physical abuse), the event creates stress and erodes the child’s sense of stability. These traumatic experiences can produce physical, psychological and emotional reactions that last a lifetime. 

It is important to note that each child interprets his or her experiences in unique ways. An experience that is traumatic for one child may not be for another child. And not all scary, dangerous or overwhelming events are considered traumatic. We all experience reactions to 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. Often, these symptoms appear when the child is somehow reminded of the stressful experience. 

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 

  • 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: divorce, moving or starting at a new school) 

Signs that your child may be dealing with trauma 

Children often struggle to make sense of a traumatic past. While adults have a more sophisticated capacity to understand what happened, why it occurred and how to deal with it, children may not—and they may get stuck. 

So how do you know if your child is struggling with traumatic stress? Though the effects of trauma manifest differently from child to child, and vary based on age and developmental level, a general sign that your child is suffering from traumatic stress is that they may act in a way that is uncharacteristic for your child. Only you know your child best; you may sense that they are not acting in a typical manner for him or her.  

When would you expect to see changes in your child’s behavior? The onset of reactions varies greatly from child to child. Some children start exhibiting signs of traumatic stress immediately after the impactful event; for others, the signs are noticeable weeks or even months later. 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—and you are here to help them get through it. 

Children of all ages—even infants—are susceptible to the effects of trauma. In fact, developmental trauma refers to traumatic stressors that occur in a child’s first three years of life. And what a child experiences during this early age tends to resurface as new behaviors in their adolescence (for instance, malaise) and can even continue to manifest into adulthood. 

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 

  • Nightmares or trouble sleeping 

  • Changes in eating habits or loss of appetite 

  • Trouble forming attachments or relationships 

  • Difficulty trusting you or others 

  • Engaging in sexual activity/promiscuity 

  • Difficulty trusting you or others 

  • Difficulty concentrating or paying attention 

  • 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) 

  • Substance use/abuse (drugs or alcohol) 

  • Engaging in sexual activity/promiscuity 

  • Risky behavior 

Learn more by reading our blog, Childhood trauma: 30+ signs your child is trying to cope

While 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), 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  

Heal your child: helpful techniques  

At SOS Children’s Villages, the basis of our approach is the belief that stable care in a safe, loving home is the foundation of a healthy upbringing. Children who grow up in a supportive family and community have a greater chance to realize their full potential, lead an independent adult life and overcome the traumatic experiences of their childhood.  

The first step in healing a traumatized child is to establish a trusting relationship. In accordance with the SOS theory of care, children require stable care from a parent or caregiver in a nurturing environment in order to recover from hardships.  

Traumatic stress can destabilize your child’s sense of security, so it’s crucial to make them feel safe. For trauma healing interventions to work, you must establish a healthy connection with your child based on unconditional love. In your parental role, you should remain consistent and predictable so that your child can trust in your stability (for instance, by establishing routines). This bond is the emotional foundation between children and reliable, dependable adults—and these comforting relationships can actually reverse the effects of adverse childhood experiences. When the atmosphere is supportive, children are extremely resilient.  

Some signs of traumatic stress exhibited by your child are intended to self-soothe or self-medicate (like the use or abuse of drugs or alcohol)—but you can take steps to redirect their stress in healthier ways. To help your child overcome the aftermath of trauma, you should engage in behavior that is both protective (shielding your child from pain and stress) and promoting (encouraging your child to react, adjust and move forward in a positive manner). 

You can strengthen your parent-child relationship and begin to heal your child’s trauma by: 

  • Guiding your child’s recovery with Trauma therapy: Using art to help your child heal.  

  • Engaging in Play therapy: Helping babies, toddlers and young children heal from trauma

  • Protecting your child and making sure they feel protected. 

  • Talking with your child in a way that makes them feel heard, appreciated and loved. 

  • Being affectionate, nurturing and comforting to an appropriate degree that is comfortable for your child. 

  • Providing a predictable, consistent rhythm and structure for your child’s day. 

  • Serious accidents (ex: car accidents) 

  • Medical diagnoses, events and life-threatening illnesses 

  • Natural disasters (ex: hurricanes, earthquakes or tsunamis)  

  • Giving your child a sense of control by providing them with choices. 

  • Openly discussing the traumatic experience and subsequent feelings/behaviors with your child, within the boundaries of the child’s level of understanding. However, be mindful to sense your child’s reactions and hesitations, as you want to avoid re-traumatization. 

  • Disciplining your child positively. Children need to know they are loved, even when they are being disciplined.  

  • Encouraging positive education. Positive education focuses on increasing your knowledge of your child’s growth, expanding your understanding of your child’s perspective, improving your communication and relationship and encouraging emotional self-control for both you and your child.  

  • Talking with your child about your expectations (ex: a positive discipline plan). 

  • Noticing signs that your child is re-enacting the traumatic event. If this happens, try taking action with the tips above. 

Remember: it’s okay to ask for help! You’re not expected to have all the answers. Your willingness to seek advice from other trusted sources is not a sign of weakness or poor parenting; it’s a sign of courage. You care deeply about your child’s well-being and you’re actively working to help them thrive! 

Learn more about childhood trauma and how SOS helps children heal and build resilience.