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  • Writer's pictureKennedy McLean

Recognizing Traumatic Stress in Children

What is Child Trauma?

There is a range of events that can be traumatic events or types of trauma that children and adolescents can be exposed to. A traumatic event threatens injury, death, or the physical integrity of self or others. When involved in or witnessing these events, children feel intensely threatened or helpless when they are involved in or witness.

Events/Situations That Could Be Traumatic for a Child Include:

  • Physical, sexual, or psychological abuse and neglect (including trafficking)

  • Family violence

  • High conflict Divorce

  • Sudden or violent loss of a loved one

  • Familial Substance Abuse

  • Refugee and war experiences

  • Serious accidents or life-threatening illness

  • Military family-related stressors (e.g., deployment, parental loss or injury)

  • Natural disasters or terrorism

When children have been in situations where they feared for their lives, believed that they would be injured, witnessed violence, or tragically lost a loved one, they may show signs of child traumatic stress

Does My Child Need Help?

It can be difficult for parents to know when their children are in need of professional help. Overall, parents and caregivers often know their children best, and so if as a parent you have concerns about your child, or you feel that they are displaying unusual behaviour, it may be a good idea to seek some help from a professional. Your child’s mental health is as important as their physical well-being.

Signs of Traumatic Stress in Children

The signs and symptoms of traumatic stress look different in children of different ages and also in individual children.

Preschool Age Children May:

  • Feel Helpless

  • Fear separation from parents/caregivers

  • Cry/scream frequently

  • Have nightmares

  • Regress to bedwetting

  • Eat poorly (and may lose weight)

  • Re-enact trauma through play

  • Regress to using baby talk

  • Exhibit changes in behaviour

Elementary School Age Children May:

  • Worry about their own and the safety of others/ have fears about the event occurring again

  • Become anxious and fearful

  • Become clingy with caregivers or teachers

  • Tell others about a traumatic event repeatedly

  • Feel guilt or shame

  • Have difficulty concentrating/ Show changes in school performance

  • Experience numbness

  • Have difficulty sleeping

  • Become easily startled

Middle/High School-Aged Children May:

  • Feel depressed

  • Abuse alcohol or drugs

  • Engage in risk-taking behaviour

  • Develop eating disorders

  • Have sleep disturbances

  • Talk in detail about traumatic events

  • Show changes in behaviour

  • Avoid places that remind them of the event

  • Experience emotional numbness/ express having no feelings about the event

Therapy for Trauma

When seeking help for your child after experiencing traumatic events, it is critical to find someone who specializes in trauma. Those who specialize in trauma will be best equipped to assist your child with the recognition, emphasis and understanding of how traumatic experiences impact a child’s mental, behavioral, emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being. Play therapy is often used to treat young children with PTSD who can't directly deal with the trauma.

Healing from trauma cannot be rushed. It is not possible to force a child to get over it. A therapist must slowly build trust and instill safety while offering skills to assist your child in understanding, coping with and processing emotions tied to traumatic events.

A child’s inner world is heavily impacted by their environment, and as parents/caregivers, some of the world in therapy will likely involve learning about your own responses and reactions as well as ways you may be able to change in positive ways that will assist your child.

If you or your child have experienced a traumatic event(s) and you have concerns, please reach out for a consultation and let’s see how I may be able to help your family heal.

About Kennedy

Kennedy has been working in the field of addiction and mental health for 10 years. She currently runs a virtual private practice treating clients throughout Ontario.   

Kennedy's practice currently focuses on trauma, attachment, couples therapy. Associate therapists work with people of all ages experiencing a wide range of concerns such as stress, depression, anxiety, relationship distress, and grief for example.

Anything written in blog posts are the thoughts of Kennedy. They are intended to offer information that may be interesting or useful for contemplation.


Nothing written is intended to be a substitute for seeking professional help.

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