Trauma In Children: What Parents and Caregivers Can Do

Each year, children are exposed to violence, natural disasters, an other traumas. They are injured, see others injured, suffer sexual abuse, lose loved ones, or witness other shocking and tragic events. We as parents, teachers, and caregivers can be the first measure in helping overcome these experiences and start the process of recovery. 

What Is Trauma? 

"Trauma" is often looked upon as physical injuries. Psychological trauma, however, is an emotionally painful, shocking, stressful, and sometimes life threatening experience. While it can involve physical injuries, psychological trauma often stems in children from events like natural disasters, physical or sexual abuse, and terrorism. Reactions (responses) to trauma can be immediate or delayed. Reactions can vary is severity and cover a wide range of behaviors. The most frequent responses among children after children are a loss of trust and a fear of the event happening again. 


  • Children's reactions to trauma are strongly influenced by adults' responses to trauma

  • People from different cultures may have their own ways of reacting to trauma


Children age 5 and under may react in a number of ways including: 

  • showing signs of fear
  • clinging to parent or caregiver
  • crying or screaming
  • whimpering or trembling
  • moving aimlessly 
  • becoming immobile
  • returning to behaviors common to being younger
  • thumbsuckng
  • bedwetting
  • being afraid of the dark 

Children age 6 to 11 may react by:

  • isolating themselves
  • becoming quiet around friends, teachers, and family
  • having nightmares or other sleep problems 
  • refusing to go to bed
  • becoming irritable or disruptive
  • having outburst of anger
  • starting fights
  • being unable to concentrate
  • refusing to go to school
  • complaining of physical problems 
  • developing unfounded fears
  • becoming depressed
  • expressing guilt over an event
  • feeling numb emotionally
  • doing poorly with school or homework
  • losing interest in fun activities

Adolescents age 12 to 17 may react by:

  • having flashbacks to the event (flashback are the mind reliving the event)
  • having nightmares or other sleep problems
  • avoiding reminders of the event
  • being disruptive, disrespectful, or behaving destructively
  • feeling isolated or confused
  • depression
  • anger
  • having suicidal thoughts
  • losing interest in fun activities

What can parents do to help? 

After violence or disaster, it is important for us as caregivers and parents to identify and address our own feelings, as it will allow us to help others. Explain to your child/children and let them know that : 

  • you love them
  • the event was not their fault
  • you will do your best to take care of them
  • it is okay for them to feel upset


  • allow your child to cry
  • allow sadness
  • let them talk about how they feel uninterrupted 
  • encourage them to write about their feelings
  • allow them draw about what they are feeling 


  • expect children to be brav
  • make children discuss the events before they're ready
  • get angry if children show strong emotions
  • get upset if they begin bedwetting, thumbsucking, or acting out

Other tips:

  • If children have trouble sleeping, adjust their routine (allow them to sleep with a light on, or in your room for a short time)
  • Be sure to keep the daily routines like reading bedtime stories, eating dinner together, exercising, playing outside, etc. If you can't maintain old routines, create new ones together
  • Help children feel in control by picking clothing, meals, or make decisions together. 


National Center for PTSD:

National Child Traumatic Stress Network:

Federal Emergency Management Agency:



Information provided by the National Institute of Mental Health.