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Trauma in children: definition & symptoms

Trauma. We’ve all heard of the word, even used it at some point or another with a friend, family member or a colleague. You know, trauma is a specific event that causes so much distress to a person that he or she cannot function normally on a day to day basis. Their dysfunction will sometimes bring on the diagnosis of what we call ‘post-traumatic stress disorder,’ or PTSD for short. 

It should be said though that not everyone who experiences trauma will go on to develop PTSD, even if he or she shows early signs of the disorder. In fact, sometimes people will develop a natural recovery period after experiencing a traumatic event.  

Perhaps what you don’t know is how trauma translates in children. A traumatic event for a child is an event that exposes him/her to death, causes serious injury, or violence. The child may have experienced the event directly, been a witness to it, or learned about it as a result of the event happening to a close family member or friend. 

But what is considered a ‘traumatic’ event for a child? Before we move on to list a few examples of traumatic events, it should be mentioned that not every child will react the same way to a trauma as another. For instance, experiencing a natural disaster such as a flooding might be extremely scary for one child and he might fully recover from the event several months later, but for another child, he or she might still be struggling for years to process what occurred and to move forward. This is because trauma depends on many factors, including the child’s perception of the event, proximity to it, previous experiences, post-experiences and much more… 

Here are some examples of traumatic events that may lead children to develop PTSD:

  • Natural disaster such as floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc
  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Violence such as domestic or community based
  • The death of a family member
  • Displacement from the home
  • Car accident
  • School shooting
  • Bullying–cyber bullying and face-to-face

Also, a traumatic event can occur just once, like a car accident, or the trauma can be recurring, like children experiencing persistent emotional or physical abuse at home, living in communities that are constantly being bombed or attacked, etc. 

Children exposed to traumatic events develop a host of symptoms ranging from irritability to emotional detachment which may interfere with his or her ability to function daily. It is normal for him or her to struggle to recover. Issues such as throwing tantrums, being moody, clinging onto caregivers, or having nightmares will be fairly common. If any of the issues persist after a month then the child may have PTSD.

Here is a list of some of the common symptoms associated with PTSD in children: 

  • Nightmares
  • Unusual irritability
  • Reduced attention span
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Significant change in mood
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Increased separation anxiety
  • Being easily startled
  • Significant change in the way s/he views the world, relationships, or her/himself
  • Feelings of guilt or shame
  • Seeming detached or estranged from others/distrustful

On top of all the above stated symptoms, it is normal for children with PTSD to re-experience the trauma in the form of nightmares, flashbacks or intrusive memories. Sometimes, children as young as four will re-experience the traumatic event during play, which parents, even strangers, may find off-putting. 

Also, some children will have different PTSD symptoms depending on their age.  For instance, younger children may not be able to articulate or put into words what they are feeling. Parents may notice the child being more avoidant than usual when something–a noise, smell, touch, etc–reminds the child of the event. In addition, younger children are fairly concrete thinkers, meaning that if the event happened on a Tuesday, he or she (with PTSD) might start to think that all Tuesdays are bad. 

While some PTSD symptoms will be easier for parents and teachers to notice, some may not be so easy, such as shifts in thinking. Being able to understand PTSD symptoms and how they can change with developmental stages will be key to getting a proper diagnosis. Moreover, it also helps tremendously with the treatment phase. In fact, as children mature developmentally, they will sometimes find that they are struggling with an element of their trauma that didn’t bother them before. As a result, they may need more therapy sessions to help them deal with that new symptom. 

All in all, trauma looks and acts differently from child to child. And PTSD symptoms may resurface at any point during a child’s development, depending on how his or her brain was able to interpret and process the traumatic event when it happened.

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