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Age-Related Reactions to a Traumatic Event

An essential goal of parenting is to help children grow and thrive to the best of their potential. Sometimes when danger threatens, parents anticipate protecting their children from danger whether it is manmade such as violence in the community or natural such as severe weather. When such danger is life-threatening or poses a threat of serious injury, it becomes a potentially traumatic event for children.

By understanding how children experience traumatic events and how they express their lingering distress over the experience, parents, and other caregivers along with communities and schools can respond to the children and help them through this challenging time.

How children experience traumatic events and how they express their lingering distress depends on the children’s age and level of development.

Preschool and young school age children exposed to a traumatic event may experience a feeling of helplessness, uncertainty about whether there is continued danger, a general fear that extends beyond the traumatic event and into other aspects of their lives, and difficulty describing in words what is bothering them or what they are experiencing emotionally. These feelings of helplessness and anxiety are often expressed as a loss of acquired developmental skills. Sometimes young children lose some speech and toileting skills. They may not be able to fall asleep and when asleep might be disturbed by nightmares. They might not easily separate from parents at school. Those who previously played in the yard may not want to do so without the parent present.

In many cases children may engage in traumatic play-a repetitive and less imaginative form of play that may represent children’s continued focus on the traumatic event or an attempt to change a negative outcome of a tragic event.

For school-age children, a traumatic experience may elicit feelings of persistent concern over their own safety and the safety of others in their school or family. These children may be preoccupied with their own actions during the event. Often, they experience guilt or shame over what they did or did not do during the traumatic event. School-age children might engage in constant retelling of traumatic events, or they may describe being overwhelmed by their feelings of fear or sadness. Children of this age may display sleep disturbances, which might include difficulty falling asleep, fear of sleeping alone, or frequent nightmares.

Teachers often comment that these children are having greater difficulties concentrating and learning at school. Children at this age may complain of headaches and stomach aches without obvious cause, and some children engage in unusually reckless or aggressive behavior.

Adolescents often feel self-conscious about their emotional responses to the traumatic event. Feelings of fear, vulnerability, and concern over being labeled “abnormal” or different from their peers may cause adolescents to withdraw from family and friends. Adolescents often experience feelings of shame and guilt about the traumatic event and may express fantasies about revenge and retribution. A traumatic event for adolescents may foster a radical shift in the way they think about the world. Also, some adolescents engage in self-destructive or accident-prone behaviors.

How to Help

The involvement of family, health providers, school and community is critical through the emotional and physical challenges they face after exposure to a traumatic event. Visit our website to read more about how you can help children of all ages.


Age-Related Reactions to a Traumatic Event, National Child Traumatic Network

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