Throughout life upsetting events, also known as traumas unfortunately occur. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) differentiates between a trauma and a traumatic event.
According to NCTSN, a trauma is a dangerous and scary event.
A traumatic event is when there is danger and threat of injury or death as well as fear and helplessness. This is an important differentiation because not all traumas (scary/upsetting events) are traumatic events.
Types of traumatic events include but are not limited to:
- Abuse (physical or sexual)
- Accidents / Injury
- Witnessing violence (domestic or within the community)
- Natural disasters
- Unexpected death of a loved one
Children exposed to traumatic experiences have varied responses. A child that experiences a traumatic event may have difficulties and experience stress. Their stress reactions may resolve quickly or they may become ongoing. A child may also have a delayed reaction. Each child is different. When a child’s ability to cope and their functioning is impacted for more than a month, a child may be experiencing traumatic stress. They may meet the criteria for the psychiatric condition Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) stated that PTSD can occur in all ages beginning at age one. Not every child experiencing stress related to a trauma meets the criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD.
PTSD is a psychiatric condition. In addition to exposure a traumatic event symptoms of PTSD are the following:
- Intrusive memories /re-experiencing the event (flashbacks, nightmares)
- Avoidance behavior / numbing feelings
- Negative mood and thoughts
- Feelings of arousal (irritability, sleep troubles, restlessness)
Trauma can impact a child and their family in large ways. The way that traumatic stress appears will vary among children and will depend on their age and developmental stage. There are various emotional, behavioral and cognitive responses you may see in your child.
Below are some, but not all, noteworthy signs exhibited in children that suggest they may be struggling:
3- 5 years old
- Difficulty focusing or learning
- Acting out in social situations / disruptive
- Separation difficulties
- Somatic complaints (stomach troubles or headaches)
- Unusual clinginess / regression in talking
- High level of anger or excessive temper
- Changes in play
6-12 years old
- Sleep or eating changes (nightmares)
- Irritability / agitation / acting out
- Shame / guilt expressed
- School problems (concentration difficulties, incomplete work, refusal to attend school)
- Withdrawal from others
Parents do not wish for their child to have difficulties or experience scary events. If your family or child has experienced a traumatic event and you are concerned, seeking professional help can be useful. Regardless if they meet the criteria for PTSD, children may benefit from support if they have been exposed to a traumatic event. Individual, group and/or family therapy can provide education about reactions to trauma, assist with how to reestablish safety and provide a child as well as parents, a place to appropriately process and express feelings in a helpful and planned manner.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Written by Joshua Rosenthal, PsyD