What Is Trauma?
People often use the word “trauma” to refer to a traumatic event. A trauma is a scary, dangerous, or violent event that can happen to anyone. Not all dangerous or scary events are traumatic events, however.
What Is a Traumatic Event?
A traumatic event is a scary, dangerous, or violent event. An event can be traumatic when we face or witness an immediate threat to ourselves or to a loved one, often followed by serious injury or harm. We feel terror, helplessness, or horror at what we are experiencing and at our inability to stop it or protect ourselves or others from it.
Often, people feel bad after a trauma. Even though we try hard to keep children safe, dangerous events still happen. This danger can come from outside of the family (such as a natural disaster, car accident, school shooting, or community violence) or from within the family, such as a serious injury, domestic violence, physical or sexual abuse, or the unexpected death of a loved one.
What Is Child Traumatic Stress?
When a child has had one or more traumatic events, and has reactions that continue and affect his or her daily life long after the events have ended, we call it Child Traumatic Stress. Children may react by becoming very upset for long periods, depressed, or anxious. They may show changes in the way they behave, or in their eating and sleeping habits; have aches and pains; have difficulties at school, problems relating to others, or not want to be with others or take part in activities. Older children may use drugs or alcohol, behave in risky ways, or engage in unhealthy sexual activity.
Do Traumatic Events Happen Often?
The number of traumatic events varies. For example, between 25% and 43% of children are exposed to sexual abuse; between 39% and 85% of children witness community violence. And more than half of children report experiencing a traumatic event by age 16 (Presidential Task Force on PTSD and Trauma in Children and Adolescents, 2008).
Fortunately, even when children experience a traumatic event, they don’t always develop traumatic stress. Many factors contribute to symptoms including whether they have experienced trauma in the past (see section on Understanding Trauma for more information).
What Experiences Might Be Traumatic?
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.
(Information obtained from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network: http://www.nctsn.org/resources/audiences/parents-caregivers)