Trauma

When a child is traumatised, it affects the whole child – their mind, body, spirit and relationships with others.
Two students talking

Childhood trauma is the result of an event, or series of events, that cause a child to feel helpless and pushed beyond their ability to cope.

All children experience events that affect them both emotionally and physically, but which don’t necessarily lead to trauma. Reactions to these events are usually brief and children recover without further difficulties.

At other times, ordinary events that may not appear overwhelming from an adult’s perspective can be very frightening for a child. These include falls, accidents and invasive medical and surgical procedures. Some are overwhelming to almost any child – for example, exposure to violence, physical and sexual abuse, or being forced to leave their home or country.

They can have an impact on young children, not only from direct exposure, but also by seeing and hearing about them in films, on television and in the newspaper.

Sometimes the effects of trauma are immediate and more obvious

But on other occasions, the impact may take some time to appear. When a child is traumatised, it affects the whole child – their mind, body, spirit and relationships with others.

  • Different types of trauma

    One way to understand trauma is to break the events into different types. 

    Simple trauma 

    This is a single event that lasts a short time and involves a one-off crisis. 

    Most simple traumas are unexpected and, generally, people in the community respond in a supportive and helpful way. The causes tend to be impersonal events such as car accidents, house fires, cyclones and floods. 

    Complex trauma 

    Complex trauma involves threats and violence between people. 

    This type of trauma is generally caused by a series of events and lasts longer than simple trauma. Often, people who experience complex trauma feel unsupported, isolated and blamed, with a sense of shame and stigma. Examples of complex trauma include child abuse, bullying, family violence, rape, war and imprisonment. 

    Developmental trauma 

    Exposure to longstanding or repeated traumatic events can cause this type of response. 

    The impact of such trauma reduce development of the ‘thinking part’ of a child’s brain. It limits the way they can manage their feelings and behaviour, affecting a child’s ability to reach their full potential. Developmental trauma includes incidents when children are neglected, abused or experience ongoing conflict between family members. The impact of complex trauma can lead to developmental trauma.

  • What makes an event traumatic?

    Not all children are affected in the same way by similar events 

    Both the type of event and the way a child responds to it contribute to the likelihood that they’ll be traumatised by it. Children are strongly influenced by their past experiences – the more stressful experiences in a child’s life, often known as ‘risk factors’, the greater the chance they’ll be traumatised by future events.

    There are a range of events that could be traumatic for children. These can be broken down into five broad areas.

    Accidents and falls (simple trauma) 

    Children may have serious accidents, such as falling down a set of stairs, off beds and bicycles, and out of high chairs. Traumatic responses are more likely to occur when the accident is more serious. For example, near-drownings, such as in bathtubs, backyard pools or at the beach, are also potential triggers for a traumatic response. Other examples are motor vehicle accidents (even at low speed) and being winded after a fall.

    Medical and surgical procedures (simple or complex trauma) 

    Invasive medical procedures are one of the commonly overlooked events that can lead to a traumatic response. This is more likely to occur when children have been separated from their family and are frightened or are unprepared for what will happen to them. Some examples of these situations include getting stitches or needles, having a physical examination or going to the dentist.

    Environmental stresses (simple or complex trauma) 

    Drought, bushfires, floods and cyclones are some of the common natural disasters that can trigger a traumatic response. Other environmental stresses, such as loud noise, a hot car, or a freezing cold room can create a traumatic response in babies and young children who don’t have the physical ability to manage these conditions.

    Grief and loss (simple or complex trauma) 

    It’s common for children to experience some form of loss in their lives, such as the death of a family member or loved pet. Divorce and separation can also cause grief and loss and affects up to half of the families in Australia. Other examples are the loss of belongings or the family home after a natural disaster such as flood or fire. Learn more in Be You’s Grief Fact Sheet.

    Violence and attacks (complex and developmental trauma) 

    Children can be affected by being attacked as well as by watching someone else being attacked. This includes seeing and hearing violent acts on television, the internet, radio, video games and in newspapers. Other examples of violent acts and attacks include bullying, animal attacks, family violence, war and displacement, physical and sexual abuse, and neglect.

    Cultural trauma can have an impact on children

    This includes things like stressful migration for refugees, a history of trauma such as the Stolen Generation in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and adapting to a new culture.  The impact of these experiences can last for a long time.  

    Experiencing any of the events described here doesn’t necessarily mean a child will be traumatised

    A child’s relationships, their feeling of safety, the presence of risk factors, and the personal meaning they attribute to the experience all influence their response.

  • How can trauma affect children?

    Trauma can have both short-term and long-term impacts on children 

    In the short term, experiencing trauma causes children to have a stress response. Usually a child’s brain and nervous system work together to help them make sense of incoming information from their senses, like sight and sound. When they experience trauma, chemicals (like adrenaline) rush around a child’s body, affecting signals between brain and nervous system.

    Having a stress response after trauma might make it harder for children to: 

    • process information
    • remember things
    • concentrate
    • manage their feelings. 

    It might also take children who’ve experienced trauma a long time to calm down after having a stress response.

    Long-term, trauma can affect children in lots of different ways that aren’t always obvious

    Sometimes things like sights, sounds, smells and movements that remind children of trauma can trigger stress responses again, even if the actual event happened a long time ago. Repeated trauma reactions can be embedded in brain architecture, meaning that traumatised children are more likely to experience frequent stress responses, even when there’s no threat or danger.

    It can be difficult for others, such as educators, to understand what’s upsetting to a child when they don’t know what the trigger is.  Sometimes a child doesn’t understand what made them react in such a way – this is where adults can help children understand and manage their feelings.

    Trauma affects every child differently, depending on their age, personality and past experiences

    Trauma can disrupt the relationships a child has with their families and educators, as well as interrupt the development of language, physical and social skills, and the ability to manage their emotions and behaviour.

    Children remember trauma

    There is an incorrect, but widespread, belief that young children aren’t affected by trauma and don’t notice or remember traumatic events. This means that when children are traumatised, their feelings may not be acknowledged. As children are dependent on others for care and safety, and their brains and bodies are still growing, they’re much more vulnerable to trauma than adults. Read more about brain development in children and young people.

    Events in a young child’s life, particularly the first few years, influence:
    • the immune system
    • how they express and manage their feelings
    • behaviour and stress
    • the formation of relationships
    • communication skills
    • intelligence
    • functions like body temperature and hormone production.

    Understanding the possible impact trauma may have on children helps make sense of their behaviours and emotions. It enables you to make links between previous events in their lives, as well as promote positive mental health and wellbeing.

  • What does a trauma response look like? 

    Experiencing trauma can affect a child’s behaviour

    They might become quiet and withdrawn or their behaviour might become more explosive, aggressive and unpredictable. They might damage furniture or do things that could hurt others. Sometimes children may also engage in repetitive routines to make themselves feel better.

    There are a range of behaviours seen in children who’ve experienced trauma
    • Regression: They may return to ‘younger’ behaviours like bed wetting or sucking their thumb.
    • Difficulties concentrating: It may be hard to focus on tasks and the child is easily distracted.
    • Sudden mood swings: A child might appear happy and relaxed one minute and then become frightened the next.
    • Outbursts of anger: There may be sudden aggression or rage, including yelling and throwing things.
    • Nightmares: Disturbances might include calling out in sleep, waking suddenly in the night appearing confused or frightened.
    • Sleep problems: A child may wake early, frequently, or have problems falling asleep.
    • Flashbacks: Appearing disengaged, a child acts or feels as if they are back reliving the trauma.
    • Hypervigilance: They may startle easily or appear ‘jumpy’.
    • Anxiety or panic: A child can appear scared, experiencing physical anxiety such as sweating, shaking, nausea, shortness of breath.
    • Depression: There can be crying, sadness, no interest in playing with others or engaging in previously enjoyed activities.
    • Dissociative experiences: Sometimes, the child’s face and expression may appears ‘frozen’ and they behave as if they’re thinking intently or listening to something only they can hear. They appear not ‘present’ or ‘zoned out’.
    • Problems communicating: A child might be selective about who they speak with.
    The types of behavioural responses that may be observed in babies and toddlers include: 
    • avoidance of eye contact
    • loss of physical skills such as rolling over, sitting, crawling and walking
    • fear of going to sleep, especially when alone
    • nightmares
    • loss of appetite
    • making very few sounds
    • increased crying and general distress
    • unusual aggression
    • constantly on the move with no quiet times
    • sensitivity to noises.
    Experiencing trauma can have a great impact on how children relate to the people in their lives

    They may have difficulty trusting other people, making and sustaining friendships with peers and sustaining relationships with the adults in their life (including their educators). 

  • What can you do to help?

    Your school or early learning service can support children in their recovery from a traumatic event

    Here are some ideas.

    • Build a school culture that provides safety, security and support for children through a predictable environment, positive relationships with adults, consistent routines and structure.
    • Let children and families know they can talk about trauma, if and when they feel comfortable to do so. Promote the school or early learning service as a place that families can come to seek parenting resources or information about trauma.
    • Promote development of social and emotional skills in the learning community. Children who have experienced trauma may also have problems managing difficult emotions, getting along with others, making decisions and taking others’ feelings into consideration.
    • Learn more about the cultural aspects of trauma. For example, in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, the community does not see images or hear recordings of a person who has passed away. Understanding how different cultures manage traumatic situations may help you recognise the signs of trauma within that group.
    • Be mindful of the impact of hearing about other people’s trauma. Educators need to take time to look after themselves and their colleagues. It also means they need to take care of other children who may have been supporting a child who has been traumatised.
    • Establish links with community agencies or trauma experts who can assist children and families.
    With help, children can recover from the harmful effects of trauma 

    To do so, they need predictable, warm and stable environments. Most importantly, they need the adults in their lives to understand and respond to their needs.

     

    Be You Professional Learning

    Critical incidents affecting the learning community can also be traumatic for children. Learn about the impacts of critical incidents and how learning communities can prepare and be responsive in times of crisis in the Responding Together domain.

  • References

    Cohen, J. A., Mannarino, A. P., & Deblinger, E. (2016). Treating trauma and traumatic grief in children and adolescents. New York: Guilford Press.

    Cole, S., Greenwald O'Brien, J., & Gadd, M. G. (2005). Helping traumatized children learn: Supportive school environments for children traumatized by family violence. Boston: Massachusetts Advocates for Children. Retrieved from https://traumasensitiveschools.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Helping-Traumatized-Children-Learn.pdf.

    Cook, A., Spinazzola, J., Ford, J., Lanktree, C., Blaustein, M., Cloitre, M., ... & Mallah, K. (2017). Complex trauma in children and adolescents. Psychiatric Annals, 35(5), 390-398.

    Copeland, W. E., Keeler, G., Angold, A., & Costello, E. (2007). Traumatic events and posttraumatic stress in childhood. Archives of General Psychiatry, 64(5), 577-584.

    Kenardy, J., Le Brocque, R., March, S., & De Young, A. (2010). How children and young people experience and react to traumatic events. Canberra: Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma, Loss and Grief Network. Retrieved from http://earlytraumagrief.anu.edu.au/files/ACATLGN_TraumaResources_Booklet_
    D1%282%29.pdf.

    Osofsky, J. D. (2011). Introduction: Trauma through the eyes of a young child. In Joy D. Osofsky (Ed.), Clinical work with traumatized young children. (pp. 1-7). New York: Guilford Press.

    Yehuda, R., Halligan, S. L., & Grossman, R. (2001). Childhood trauma and risk for PTSD: Relationship to intergenerational effects of trauma, parental PTSD, and cortisol excretion. Development and Psychopathology, 13(3), 733-753.