Child Traumatic Stress

The primary role of parents is to protect children. One important way to do this is to prevent their exposure to information they cannot handle. Young children do not need to be told about traumatic current events events that they have no way of understanding. So it is best to:

  • Turn off TV and radio news reports; don’t leave newspapers lying around.
  • Ask friends and family not to discuss the scary event around your child.
  • Maintain your child’s regular routine.

Behaviors you might see in young children who have been exposed to a scary or traumatic event:

  • Increased clinginess, crying and whining
  • Greater fear of separation from parents
  • Increase in aggressive behavior
  • More withdrawn and harder to engage
  • Play that acts out scary events
  • Changes in sleeping and eating patterns
  • More easily frustrated and harder to comfort
  • A return to earlier behaviors, like frequent night-wakening and thumb-sucking

What you can do:

  • Respond to your child’s need for increased attention, comfort and reassurance. This will make him feel safer sooner.
  • Pay close attention to your child’s feelings and validate them. Ignoring feelings does not make them go away.
  • Help your child identify her feelings by naming them (scary, sad, angry, etc.).
  • Offer your child safe ways to express feelings, such as drawing, pretend play, or telling stories.
  • Don’t discourage your child’s play because you find it disturbing. Young children work through frightening events by reenacting them through play. If your child seems to be distressed by his play, comfort him and redirect him to another activity.
  • Be patient and calm when your child is clingy, whiny, or aggressive. He needs you to help him regain control and feel safe.
  • Answer children’s questions according to their level of understanding: “Yes, a bad thing happened but we are keeping you safe.”
  • And critically:

    Tune in to your own feelings and get the support you need to cope. Managing your own emotions allows you to exude a sense of calm, and lets your child know that you are strong and in control, which is the most powerful way to let your child know she is safe.

    The above information was excerpted from Zero to Three, a national organization working to improve the lives of infants and toddlers. For more information and resources about coping with a traumatic event, click on the Zero to Three link above.

    The New Haven Public School System makes the following age-appropriate recommendations after a tragedy:


    • Make an extra effort to provide comfort and reassurance.
    • Reassure the child that you and other grown-ups will protect them.
    • Encourage expression of feelings and emotions through play, drawing, puppet shows, and storytelling.
    • Limit media exposure.

    Elementary-Age Children

    • Provide extra attention and consideration.
    • Set gentle but firm limits for acting out behavior.
    • Give clear explanations of what happened whenever a child asks.
    • Avoid details that would scare a child. Correct any misinformation that your child has about whether there is a present danger.
    • Provide opportunities for children to express concern.
    • Limit media exposure.
    • Encourage expression of thoughts and feelings through conversation and play.
    • Point out kind deeds and the ways in which people helped each other during the disaster or traumatic event.

    Pre-adolescents and Adolescents

    • Provide extra attention and consideration.
    • Be there to listen to your children, but don’t force them to talk about feelings and emotions.
    • Encourage discussion of trauma experiences among peers.
    • Urge participation in physical activities.
    • Encourage resumption of regular social and recreational activities.


    The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has developmentally appropriate resources to help parents, caregivers and other caring adults talk with children and adolescents after a tragedy of mass violence. Go to to find information about talking to children, exposing children to news media, restoring a sense of safety and more.

    The National Association of School Psychologists also has resources at Look especially at the article that reminds us that as caretakers, we must take care of ourselves to retain our own well-being and be there for our children.

    If you yourself feel the need to talk to someone about the emotions you are experiencing or want to know about local resources, call Infoline by dialing 211 on your phone. They are available 24 hours day/7 days week and they will direct you to the right place.

    From the National Child Traumatic Stress Network

    What is child traumatic stress, how does it develop, and what are the symptoms? To answer these questions, we first have to understand what trauma is. From a psychological perspective, trauma occurs when a child experiences an intense event that threatens or causes harm to his or her emotional and physical well-being.

    Trauma can be the result of exposure to a natural disaster such as a hurricane or flood or to events such as war and terrorism. Witnessing or being the victim of violence, serious injury, or physical or sexual abuse can be traumatic. Accidents or medical procedures can result in trauma, too. Sadly, about one of every four children will experience a traumatic event before the age of 16.

    When children have a traumatic experience, they react in both physiological and psychological ways. Their heart rate may increase, and they may begin to sweat, to feel agitated and hyperalert, to feel “butterflies” in their stomach, and to become emotionally upset. These reactions are distressing, but in fact they’re normal — they’re our bodies’ way of protecting us and preparing us to confront danger.

    However, some children who have experienced a traumatic event will have longer lasting reactions that can interfere with their physical and emotional health.

    Children who suffer from child traumatic stress are those children who have been exposed to one or more traumas over the course of their lives and develop reactions that persist and affect their daily lives after the traumatic events have ended. Traumatic reactions can include a variety of responses, including intense and ongoing emotional upset, depressive symptoms, anxiety, behavioral changes, difficulties with attention, academic difficulties, nightmares, physical symptoms such as difficulty sleeping and eating, and aches and pains, among others. Children who suffer
    from traumatic stress often have these types of symptoms when reminded in some way of the traumatic event. Although many of us may experience these reactions from time to time, when a child is experiencing child traumatic stress, they interfere with the child’s daily life and ability to function and interact with others. Some of these children may develop ongoing symptoms that are diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

    When we talk about child traumatic stress, we’re talking about the stress of any child who’s had a traumatic experience and is having difficulties moving forward with his or her life. When we talk about PTSD, we’re talking about a disorder defined by the American Psychiatric Association as having specific symptoms: the child continues to re-experience the event through nightmares, flashbacks, or other symptoms for more than a month after the original experience; the child has what we call avoidance or numbing symptoms—he or she won’t think about the event, has memory lapses, or maybe feels numb in connection with the events—and the child has feelings of arousal, such as increased irritability, difficulty sleeping, or others. Every child diagnosed with PTSD is experiencing child traumatic stress, but not every child experiencing child traumatic stress has all the symptoms for a PTSD diagnosis.

    And not every child who experiences a traumatic event will develop symptoms of child traumatic stress. Whether or not your child does depends on a range of factors. These include his or her history of previous trauma exposure, because children who have experienced prior traumas are more likely to develop symptoms after a recent event. They also include an individual child’s mental and emotional strengths and weaknesses and what kind of support he or she has at home and elsewhere.

    In some instances, when two children encounter the same situation, one will develop ongoing difficulties and the other will not. Children are unique individuals, and it’s unwise to make sweeping assumptions about whether they will or will not experience ongoing troubles following a traumatic event. For children who do experience traumatic stress, there are a wide variety of potential consequences. In addition to causing the symptoms listed earlier, the experience can have a direct impact on the development of children’s brains and bodies.

    Traumatic stress can interfere with children’s ability to concentrate, learn, and perform in school. It can change how children view the world and their futures, and can lead to future employment problems. It can also take a tremendous toll on the entire family. The way that traumatic stress appears will vary from child to child and will depend on the child’s age and developmental level. The good news is that over the past decade the mental health community has developed treatments that can help children suffering from traumatic stress. It’s important to seek help from someone who has experience working with children and knows how to access resources in your community. Although not every child will experience traumatic stress, it’s unlikely that any of us are immune from exposure to trauma. To learn more about child traumatic stress, please visit the National Child Traumatic Stress Network website at

    This article first appeared in the fall 2003 issue of Claiming Children, the newsletter of the Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health,, which was co-produced by the Federation and the NCTSN.

    Child Trauma Online Resource for Parents

    The popular online resource for parents and caregivers devoted to children’s mental health information,, is launching a new “Child Trauma” section. The new trauma content includes important information for parents and caregivers to help them with a child who has been a victim of a traumatic event. Much like the overall website, this section is filled with frequently asked questions, an extensive resource library of publications, facts and figures and links specifically focused on childhood trauma.

    The new Child Trauma section also includes:

    • Examples of potentially traumatic events for children
    • Detailed explanations of the signs and symptoms of childhood traumatic stress
    • Information on when parents should seek help
    • A comprehensive list of effective childhood traumatic stress interventions available in Connecticut and nationally
    • Trauma-focused supports and services


    National studies estimate that as many as 71% of all children are exposed to a potentially traumatic event by the age of 17. In Connecticut, providers and DCF estimate that 60-80% of children seeking treatment have experienced at least one potentially traumatic event. The actual numbers of children exposed are likely higher, as most incidents of trauma exposure are not reported. Children who are exposed to potentially traumatic events are at risk for a number of emotional and behavioral challenges. Fortunately, effective treatment options are available.

    The Connecticut Center for Effective Practice (CCEP), a division of the Child Health and Development Institute of Connecticut (CHDI) initially developed in November 2010 to serve as a free, comprehensive resource on children’s mental health issues for parents and caregivers in Connecticut. The website provides a range of information in English and Spanish impacting toddlers to late teens. For more information, visit