Traumatic Stress and our Children

nwO72q8-for_web.jpgThe following presents a brief summary of an unfortunately growing issue among children of all ages in today’s society. Research from The National Child Traumatic Stress Network ( suggests that 1 in every 4 of our school children has been exposed to a traumatic event that can affect learning and/or behavior in school. Further research states that approximately 25% of American children have witnessed at least one traumatic event by age 16. 

When children witness one or more traumatic events, and their reactions continue to affect their daily life long after the events have ended, it is called Childhood Traumatic Stress.  More than 20 years of studies have confirmed that school-aged children and adolescents can experience the full range of posttraumatic stress reactions that are seen in adults.

Traumatic events can encompass many different scenarios such as:

-Physical or sexual abuse



-Death or loss of a loved one

-Automobile or other serious accidents


-Witnessing domestic violence or community violence


-Life threatening illness and/or painful medical procedures

-Witnessing police activity or having a close relative arrested

-Life threatening natural disasters

-Living in chronic economic stress and poverty which may present as chronically chaotic environments in which housing and financial resources are not consistently available


-School violence


-Difficulty eating and sleeping

-Difficulties at school

-Intense and ongoing emotional upset

Trauma can impact school performance in the form of increased absences, lower grades and reading ability, more suspensions and expulsions, and in some cases, higher drop-out rates. Some children who experience a traumatic event on a one-time episode, may exhibit irregular sleep patterns and nightmares, anger and moodiness, and/or social withdrawal.  Learning is also affected since any of these can affect concentration and memory; functions essential to successful school performance. 

When (especially) young children are chronically exposed to traumatic events, additional effects may occur.  Recent studies also show that traumatic experiences affect the brains, bodies and behaviors of even very young children (under the age of 5), causing similar reactions to those seen in older children.  Repeated exposure can adversely affect attention, memory, thought processes; it can reduce their ability to focus, problem-solve, organize and process information. Feelings of frustration and anxiety are also common, adding to inconsistent academic performance.

Physical and emotional distress may also be present in the form of stomachaches, headaches, or an unusual amount of aches and pains. These children may have poor control of their emotions, and show unpredictable and impulsive behavior.  Traumatized children can also show intense overreactions to events that remind them of the traumatic event they experienced.

It must also be noted that children who experience traumatic events may not act out at all, but may hold their stress inward.  Signs of traumatic stress look different in each child.  It is also important to realize that many of the above signs of stress in children look like other disorders (ADHD, sleep deprivation, anxiety, and depression), that must be considered or ruled out before proper treatment can begin.

Not all children who witness traumatic events become stressed.  There are many factors involved, including if they have witnessed the event on other occasions.  Other factors include the severity of the event, the distance the child is away from the event, and the caregiver reactions. When family members care for and support each other, they can often overcome the fears and stress of trauma.  Many families also gain support from community support, faith and spiritual beliefs, and friends and other families.

Even with the support of family members, some children do not heal.  When distress continues for several weeks, a mental health professional trained in trauma care can help the entire family cope.  It is essential that if you have a concern about a child, and are aware of possible traumatic exposure, that you involve all caregivers, educational personnel, and physicians (when appropriate) to begin a proper diagnosis and treatment plan for the child.  Not seeking help can have long lasting consequences for your child; finding the proper treatment can have lifelong benefits for the child, and the family.


[Information from The National Child Traumatic Stress Network; an exceptional website with a wealth of information and resources.]