Trauma and Traumatic Events
What Is Trauma?
People often use the word “trauma” to refer to a traumatic event. 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)
Coping with Traumatic Events
- How to Talk With Students About the Russia-Ukraine War: 5 Tips
- 8 Resources Teachers Are Using to Discuss Russia's Invasion of Ukraine
- Tips for Talking With and Helping Children and Youth Cope After a Disaster or Traumatic Event: A Guide for Parents, Caregivers, and Teachers – 2012 helps parents, caregivers, and teachers to recognize and address stress responses in children and youth affected by traumatic events. It describes stress reactions that are commonly seen in young trauma survivors and offers tips on how to help.
- Parent Tips for Preschoolers – 2007 (PDF | 239 KB) (link is external). Also available in Chinese (PDF | 625 KB) (link is external), Japanese (PDF | 231 KB (link is external)), and Spanish (PDF | 292 KB) (link is external). This document is designed to help parents with preschoolers help their young children cope with disaster.
- Parent Tips for School-age Children – 2007 (PDF | 239 KB) (link is external). Also available in Chinese (PDF | 625 KB) (link is external), Japanese (PDF | 230 KB) (link is external), and Spanish (PDF | 292 KB) (link is external). This document is designed to help parents with school-age children help them cope with disaster.
- Parent Tips for Helping Adolescents After Disasters – 2007 (PDF | 238 KB) (link is external). Also available in Chinese (PDF | 618 KB) (link is external), Japanese (PDF | 229 KB) (link is external), and Spanish (PDF | 291 KB) (link is external). This document is designed to help parents help adolescents cope with disaster. Tips include possible reactions, responses, and examples of things to do and say.
- Parent Tips for Infants and Toddlers – 2007 (PDF | 303 KB) (link is external). Also available in Chinese (PDF | 950 KB (link is external)), Japanese (PDF | 247 KB) (link is external), and Spanish (PDF | 407 KB) (link is external). This document is designed to help parents with infants and toddlers understand how their child may be feeling and help their young children cope with disaster.
- Tips for Parents on Media Coverage – 2015 (PDF | 92 KB) (link is external). This tip sheet provides information for parents on how to limit a child's exposure to disturbing media images after an earthquake.
- Understanding Child Traumatic Stress – 2005 (PDF | 363 KB) (link is external). This document discusses the cognitive response to danger as it relates to traumatic experiences or traumatic stress throughout all developmental stages, particularly in children. It provides an overview of post-traumatic stress responses and their severity and duration, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following chronic or repeated trauma.
- How Much News Coverage is OK for Children? This document discusses and supports parents and guardians as they help their children navigate the increasing news coverage of traumatic events.
- Managing Your Distress in the Aftermath of a Shooting - (Spanish link) This document provided tips for parents and guardians as they manage the aftermath of a shooting.
- online.nursing.georgetown.edu/blog/empower-trauma-survivors-psychological-first-aid/ This Georgetown article explains that Psychological First Aid is an approach one can use to help someone who has experienced trauma feel safe, calm, and hopeful.
- In the Aftermath of a Shooting: Help Your Children Manage Distress - (Spanish link) This document provides tips for parents and guardians to help their children manage and cope with the aftermath of a shooting.