How Do I Know If My Child Has Emotional Trauma? It’s Complex, Says An Expert

Not every child reacts to every event in the same way.

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Emotional trauma in children can manifest in many more ways than just sadness.
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Try as we may, we can’t keep our little ones in a bubble and protect them from bad things happening to them — especially these days, when it can feel downright impossible to shield your child from trauma. Children of all ages can suffer from traumatic stress after experiencing a violent or dangerous physical, psychological, or emotional experience, and it can overwhelm their ability to cope and heal properly, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Many experiences can trigger an emotional trauma response in kids, per SAMHSA. Some potentially traumatic stressors include bullying; psychological, physical, or sexual abuse and/or neglect; natural disasters, terrorism, and community and school violence; witnessing or experiencing intimate partner violence; sexual exploitation; accidents; illness or injury; the sudden or violent loss of a loved one; refugee and war experiences; and military-related experiences, such as parental deployment, loss, or injury.

But not every child reacts to every event in the same way, and in some cases, parents might not even be aware their child has had a traumatic experience. Trauma responses can also vary by age and/or developmental stage, so it’s understandable if you want to support your little one no matter what they’ve gone through or how they’re handling it. Here’s how you can spot the signs.

What happens to the mind and body after trauma?

Trauma experts agree that “the body keeps the score,” which means that when we experience a seriously distressing event, the trauma has a way of weaving its way throughout our bodies, with the after-effects of fear and stress showing up days, weeks, months, and even years later, especially if we don’t actively work on healing. The same is true of children and adolescents, explains Jessica Stern, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia’s department of psychology.

“Major stressors put our bodies into fight/flight/freeze mode — our entire nervous system is focused on managing a threat and keeping us safe,” she says. “But in childhood trauma, we often can’t escape the threat or return to a feeling of safety. Emotionally, there may be a feeling of helplessness, loss of control, and a sense of being stuck in that mode. So even when we’re no longer in danger, our brains and bodies remain on high alert, releasing a cascade of stress hormones that can interfere with our ability to pay attention, sleep, or engage with others socially.”

There are dozens of ways that trauma can manifest within children, including:

  • Appetite changes
  • Mood changes
  • Sleep changes
  • Emotional disturbances
  • Nightmares and/or night terrors
  • Acting out or behaving aggressively
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Withdrawal
  • Clinginess
  • Social issues
  • And many more.

*This could also affect how someone's mind works, like how they learn. It can even impair memory and lead to low self-esteem. Trauma in children can evoke feelings of fear or constant anxiety and make it really hard to regulate their emotions. It can also make it harder for them to form relationships and attachments with others.

Among the less obvious symptoms, adds Stern, are reenactments of the experience. “Because children process their experiences through play, they may also re-enact traumatic events this way. Repetitive play — for example, repeatedly re-enacting a dog bite — can reveal experiences and emotions where a child may be feeling stuck in the trauma of the event.”

Any trauma symptom can be transient or long-term, which is why spotting signs early and supporting your child is of utmost importance. “Childhood emotional trauma, if left unaddressed, can alter the development of the brain and body’s stress response system,” says Stern. “These experiences literally get ‘under the skin,’ shaping risky behavior and risks to physical and mental health.”

How do you spot the signs and support your child?

“One of the best things parents can do — whether dealing with emotional trauma or children’s normal ‘ups and downs’ — is noticing,” says Stern. “You know your child better than anyone and can tell if something is ‘off.’ Notice if there is a major shift in your child’s behavior, especially eating or sleep disturbances (nightmares, trouble falling asleep alone, sleeping much more than usual), increased clinginess or anxiety, avoidance of particular places or individuals, somatic symptoms without a clear physical cause (such as (stomach aches or headaches), or sudden changes in mood, irritability, or aggression.”

Stern notes that “these signs do not mean there’s anything ‘wrong’ with your child — they are your child’s ways of trying to cope with a traumatic event. What your child needs most is your understanding, soothing presence, and support to get through it.”

“In the wake of a traumatic event, children’s fundamental need is to feel safe and connected — not alone with what they’ve experienced,” adds Stern. “The most important thing parents can do is be available and reliable — to provide a consistent haven of safety and security as children work through it. It may be helpful to consult with your child’s school counselor or talk to your child’s pediatrician to get a referral to a therapist. When choosing a therapist, make sure they are trauma-informed and trained to work with children (for example, a child psychologist, family therapist, or school psychologist).”

You’ll also want to “put on your own oxygen mask first,” especially if you’ve also undergone trauma, either with your child or otherwise. “It’s also important to recognize that parents may be working through their own trauma, and so they, too, need and deserve support — from partners, friends, their spiritual community, and a therapist if needed.”

Even though it might take a lot of love and patience to get your child (and you) through the storm, healing is possible. “The good news is that childhood trauma can be addressed through therapy and changes in the home environment to help children feel a sense of safety and stability,” says Stern. “Though healing from trauma can occur at any stage of life, early intervention is especially effective — the sooner we can identify and work to heal emotional trauma in childhood, the more likely we are to prevent the long-term repercussions on their physical and mental health.”

Expert Sources:

Jessica Stern, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia’s department of psychology

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