By Vanessa Rasmussen, © 2004, All rights reserved.

Every year millions of children undergo physical or emotional trauma. Trauma can change the way children view their world. Assumptions about safety and security are now challenged. Children's reactions will depend upon the severity of the trauma, their personality, the way they cope with stress and the availability of support. It is common for children to regress both behaviorally and academically following a trauma.

Traumatic life experiences challenge a person's normal coping efforts. For children and adolescents, traumatic experiences include such things as sexual and other physical abuse and neglect, peer or family suicide, dog bites, severe burns, kidnapping, shootings, vehicle accidents, natural disasters (e.g. floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc.), fires, and medical procedures. Witnessing assault, rape, or murder of a parent or anyone else can also be traumatic for children.

Following are some common symptoms of a child experiencing trauma:

  • Denial that the situation really happened
  • Fears, worries or nightmares
  • Sleep and/or eating disorders
  • Children regressing emotionally or act younger than their chronological age
  • They also may become more clinging, unhappy and needy of parental attention and comfort.
  • Feelings of irritability, anger, sadness or guilt
  • Somatic complaints such as headaches, stomachaches or sweating
  • Children and adolescents may repeatedly relive the trauma by acting it out in play or dreams.
  • Some might seek to avoid all reminders of the trauma by withdrawing from others, refusing to discuss their feelings, or avoiding activities that remind them of the people or places associated with the trauma.
  • Some loss of interest in school, misbehavior, and poor concentration

If your child is experiencing self-guilt, make him/her feel better about him/her. Help the child figure out events that he/she can control from those that are uncontrollable. Communicate with your children, talk about pleasant things. If the child is feeling dejected, arrange an interesting activity per day; plan for future special events; discuss enjoyable topics. Do things as a family and make sure time is reserved for enjoyable and rewarding experiences together. Shared pleasure carries a family through many difficulties. Listen and talk to them about the experience; honest, open discussion is best, as the unknown is often more frightening than the reality for children. Even very young children know that something is going on and, again, the reality is easier for them to deal with than the unknown.

Like adults, most children will adapt and grow through a crisis with the love and support of their family and friends. However, if the child's reactions are particularly severe or prolonged, or if you have other concerns about the way that your child is reacting to a traumatic incident, do not hesitate to contact a child and adolescent psychiatrist.

Copyright 2001, 2004. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article in whole or in part without written or verbal permission is strictly prohibited. For information about reprinting this article, contact the copyright owner: Vanessa Rasmussen, Ph.D, Starting a Day Care Center,