Trauma is a sudden and threatening event for children, as it is for adults. Trauma disturbs basic assumptions that children have about the world, namely, that the world is a safe and controllable place. Often, among children, reactions to trauma are quite intense since they may feel helpless and often do not understand what is going on around them. Trauma also upsets the delicate balance of parent-child relationships; the child’s confidence that his parent will always be able to protect him may be disturbed, and the parent’s sense of his role as protector may be severely undermined.
Children’s reactions to a traumatic event are strongly influenced by the behaviour of parents or other significant adults in the child’s environment. The parent serves as a role model for the child, showing him how to interpret the situation and how to react to it. Older children may be less dependent on parent’s reactions, yet their reactions are also influenced by external factors such as friends, teachers, media, as well as parents.
Children react to trauma in different ways. Some children do not show outward signs of distress. However, it is possible to divide typical reactions to a traumatic event into three developmental age groups:
Early Childhood (three to five year olds)
Typical reactions in this age group include clinging to parents, crying and a return to regressive behaviors, which are typical of earlier periods of development. These behaviors often include wetting, finger sucking and fear of the dark. Frequently, children will play games that reenact the details of the traumatic event again and again. It is through this dramatic play that children are often able to work through the traumatic event.
Middle childhood (six to eleven year olds)
Typical reactions in this age group are anger, aggressiveness, avoidance of subjects related to the trauma, regressive behavior, isolation, and difficulties in concentrating and studying. Younger children in this age group will also often reenact through dramatic play the traumatic event, again and again.
Adolescence (12 – 18 year olds)This age group shows varied reactions to traumatic events. Some adolescent reactions resemble those of adults and others resemble those of younger children. In addition, adolescents may evidence increased risk taking behavior, isolation, antisocial behavior and increased use of addictive substances such as drugs and alcohol. The behavior of adolescents that have experienced trauma can be impulsive, sometimes clearly provoking danger or ignoring it. Reactions to trauma may aggravate existing conflicts between parents and adolescents and may contribute to a vicious cycle, which causes even more extreme reactions. In many situations the child or adolescent may be experiencing significant distress even if they do not express it outwardly. It is most important for parents to develop sensitivity to their child’s distress signals and to communicate openly with their children about their traumatic experiences. In most cases, children and adolescents cope well with trauma, and return to normal functioning with time. As with adults, the healing process is predicted by the degree of exposure to the event, the amount of support available and the child’s general level of functioning before the event. A sensitive and tuned-in environment will help the child return to normal functioning more quickly.
Even though they may not have witnessed the event themselves, many parents suffer from post-traumatic symptoms, after a child of theirs has been exposed to a traumatic event. Many parents whose children were involved in a traumatic event experience a significant amount of guilt. As parents, it is important to be sensitive to your own needs and find ways to take care of yourselves during this trying time. Attending to your own needs will help your child’s healing process.