Trauma can be divided into the Three E’s: event, experience, and effects. Trauma results from an event, a series of events, or set of circumstances that threatens to or causes someone to experience severe physical or emotional harm. These experiences may result in various negative effects on that person’s everyday experience. 

Trauma can occur based on many different circumstances. Some of these include physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, witnessing family violence, bullying, and the loss of a loved one or friend. 

Each child will respond to trauma differently depending on various life factors like age, previous exposure to trauma, and family environment. While some children may not show any symptoms, short-term distress is almost universal after a child experiences a traumatic event. Here are some common reactions many children have after a traumatic event occurs: 

Common child reactions:

  • Development of new fears  
  • Hyper-reactivity to perceived threats 
  • Loss of interest in regular activities (play, hobbies, etc.) 
  • Regressive behaviours (toileting accidents after being potty trained, sucking of the thumb, reclaiming a stuffed animal as an older child)
  • Sleep problems and nightmares 
  • Sadness, low self-esteem
  • Wary of physical contact with adults
  • Separation anxiety when apart from primary caregivers
  • Behavioural extremes (acting out or withdrawal)
  • Flashbacks of the trauma 
  • Somatic symptoms (e.g., headaches, stomach-aches) 
  • Social struggles (e.g., fighting with peers)
  • Dissociation (extreme avoidance of thoughts, feelings, memories about the trauma) 
  • Sexual acting-out behaviours  

Over time, most children return to their normal lives and routines, overcoming their symptoms after several weeks or months. Some children, however, may instead develop persistent traumatic stress symptoms that may require psychological treatment. Factors that influence this include the nature of the traumatic event, prior trauma exposure, ongoing life stressors, and the presence of positive relationships in the child’s life, among others.

Children are at risk of developing more serious symptoms if they experience overlapping or cumulative traumatic events (e.g., being a victim of both physical and sexual abuse). As these events accumulate, trauma compounds and the seriousness of negative effects begin to increase. 

PTSD vs. child traumatic stress

It’s important to remember that a child experiencing traumatic stress isn’t necessarily experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). With PTSD, children continue to experience the following symptoms after a month or more:

  • Reliving the experience through flashbacks or nightmares
  • Avoidance of event reminders (e.g., avoiding the location where the trauma occurred)
  • Negative emotions (alienation, anger, hopelessness) 
  • Increased irritability
  • Difficulty sleeping

Not every child experiencing traumatic stress has all the symptoms of PTSD, but this doesn’t mean that they haven’t been affected by their experience. 

The importance of trauma-informed care 

It is important to note the difference between trauma-informed care and trauma-specific care. 

Trauma-informed care acknowledges the experiences of the child, focuses on ensuring the safety of the child and emphasizes their strength and resiliency.  Trauma-specific care includes evidence-based therapy and is only to be conducted by registered mental health professionals. 

If persistent trauma symptoms are not addressed, they may stay with the child as they grow up. This may contribute to creating lifelong struggles with depression, anxiety, pain, anger issues, and substance misuse. A caregiver’s personal trauma history may also affect their ability to cope with their child’s traumatic experience, making supports for the entire family crucial. 

Dr. Marcia Gordeyko, a registered psychologist with Alberta Health Services who works in partnership with the Zebra Child Protection Centre, believes that being trauma-informed is something everyone can be a part of. 

“Having a basic understanding of how a traumatic experience may impact children and youth is key to providing warm, empathetic support,” she says. “Research shows that for those who have experienced trauma, positive and supportive interactions can help increase resilience and prevent negative future outcomes.” 

Trauma-informed care is a crucial part of ensuring that a child feels supported and understood. 

Trauma-informed care also recognizes that when a child is affected by a traumatic event, their caregivers and support system are affected as well. Being able to recognize one another’s experiences and reactions to the event, as well as help each other cope and work through feelings of sadness, anger, or guilt, is incredibly important to the healing process. 

“This is a very hopeful message to communicate to families who have experienced trauma – that their traumatic experiences don’t have to define them,” says Dr. Gordeyko. “Being trauma-informed can help us change the message from ‘what is wrong with you?’ to ‘what happened to you?’”

How to take a trauma-informed approach

All behaviour has meaning. A child may act differently as a result of the traumatic situation that has occurred. Their behaviour is not who they are, rather, it is how they might be expressing themselves. When addressing this behaviour, try using the phrase “what happened to you?” as opposed to “what’s wrong with you?”

All feelings and experiences are real for that child/youth/parent. We are not here to determine truth; instead, we are here to listen and validate their experience.

Be careful with using the phrase “I understand”. Although you may believe you understand how that child may be feeling, every situation is unique and different. Instead of saying you understand, try using phrases like: “I’m hearing you, I’m listening, or, that sounds hard.”

Use caution around labelling. Avoid saying: “traumatized child”, instead, use: “a child who has experienced trauma.” 


If you would like to learn more about childhood trauma, please visit the following resources: 

Written by Zebra Child Protection Centre