Trauma 101

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What is Childhood Trauma?

Adorable smiling child in pink hat

Childhood trauma refers to traumatic experiences that happen between the ages of 0-17. These traumas can be the result of intentional violence - such as physical or sexual abuse or domestic violence - or the result of a natural disaster, accident or war. When a trauma happens, the child is overwhelmed by terror and can experience a prolonged heightened state of alertness, stress or persistent fear for his or her safety.

Some types include:

  • prenatal drug exposure
  • lack of attachment
  • severe neglect
  • abuse (physical, mental, sexual)
  • Death of a family member, lover, friend, teacher, or pet.
  • Divorce
  • Physical Pain or injury (e.g. severe care accident)

*from The National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children

How common is it?

Childhood trauma is more prevalent than many people realize and often has long-lasting effects.


of children in the U.S. witness or experience a traumatic event before they turn four years old.


of adults say they experienced abuse or other traumatic family events in their own childhoods.


of girls ages 14 to 17 reported experiencing sexual assault or abuse during the past year.


of youth under 18 reported experiencing a physical assault in the last year.


of children have experienced abuse by a caregiver.


of children living in poor inner-city neighborhoods are exposed to trauma.

*from The National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children

How Does Trauma Affect Youth?

Trauma affects the Brain...

  • It programs the brain to react with fear to any possible danger, whether or not there is a real threat.
  • The brains of youth who have experienced trauma are different from other youth.
  • Triggers in the environment can cause youth to behave in ways that worked for him or her when he or she was in the traumatic experience.

...which affects behaviors

  • Behaviors that you may see as negative and harmful may have been necessary to a youth's survival at some point in time.
  • Youth may not understand how to control, talk about or recognize emotions.
  • Youth may avoid eye contact.
  • Much of a youth's behavior that seems strange is actually normal for a youth who has experienced trauma.
  • Youth are typically not aware of why they react in the way that they do. They are not trying to be manipulative.

Don't take it personally!

Teenage Boy in classroom

How is learning affected?

Childhood trauma can negatively impact learning and behavior because of the way terror and fear create changes in the brain. Following exposure to a traumatic experience, survivors may become frozen in a heightened state of alertness or a persistent fear for their safety. Without trauma intervention, research has shown that these emotional states alter brain function and the student's ability to process information. This leads to difficulty in:

  • Processing verbal information
  • Focusing
  • Following teacher directions
  • Recalling what was heard
  • Retaining information

*from The National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children

Additionally, these cognitive deficits may result in:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor problem solving
  • Increased truancy
  • Behavior issues
  • Hopelessness
  • Increased peer conflict
  • Increased dropout rates

*from The National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children

How to recognize if a child may have experienced trauma

Watch for these signs:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Easily startled
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering
  • Frequent headaches or stomachaches
  • Constant state of alert
  • Diminished interest in school & activities
  • Inability to experience pleasure or joy
  • Self-blame or shame
  • Feeling of detachment from others
  • Recurrent conflicts with classmates
  • Irritability or outbursts of anger
  • Trouble focusing on classwork
  • Acting as if the traumatic event were recurring

*from The National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children

Know Your Triggers

Triggers are reactions to events, people, smells, sounds etc. that subconsciously remind you of the trauma AND CAUSE YOU TO ACT WITHOUT THINKING


What you can do

Don't assume a child showing signs of trauma will be OK if left alone. Being an advocate for the child is vital. Without treatment, the damage done by childhood trauma can last a lifetime - with consequences as serious as a risk of suicide that is 15 times higher than the general population. The goal is to help move the children who have experienced trauma from "victim thinking" to "survivor thinking," which leads to empowerment, choice, active involvement in their own healing process and a renewed sense of safety and hope.

Educators and school professionals are encouraged to learn how trauma impacts learning so that they are able to provide trauma-specific intervention. This will help minimize the learning and behavioral difficulties that can result when the needs of trauma victims go unrecognized or ignored.

*from The National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children

You can make a difference, but it takes time.

Happy Father with Son

Here's How

Celebrate small successes.

Label Emotions yours, mine, everybody's!

Choose Books that expand your child's emotional vocabulary.

Act like a tour guide. Prepare your child for what to expect, use reminders and planning.

Stay Calm! Don't let your child's emotional chaos cause you to overflow.

Model good coping.

Help your child figure out what feelings he/she has internalized throughout the day.

Notice when and if the feelings container is getting too full. Let your child express negative emotions.

Bring attention to good coping by your child

Engage in self-care.

Breath: take a deep breath before speaking or acting if upset

Dance: go to your room, crank your headphones and dance like no one's business

Cuddle: hug a dog, cat, stuffed animal, pillow, parent, friend (Re-connect)

Seek: someone you trust to be non-judgmental to speak your truth to

Trauma: does not equal SHAME. Trauma invades our lives and does not ask or knock.