Recognizing and Treating Child Traumatic Stress

Learn about the signs of traumatic stress, its impact on children, treatment options, and how families and caregivers can help.

Types of Traumatic Events

Childhood traumatic stress occurs when violent or dangerous events overwhelm a child’s or adolescent’s ability to cope.

Traumatic events may include:

  • Neglect and psychological, physical, or sexual abuse
  • Natural disasters, terrorism, and community and school violence
  • Witnessing or experiencing intimate partner violence
  • Commercial sexual exploitation
  • Serious accidents, life-threatening illness, or sudden or violent loss of a loved one
  • Refugee and war experiences
  • Military family-related stressors, such as parental deployment, loss, or injury

In one nationally representative sample of young people ages 12 to 17:

  • 8% reported a lifetime prevalence of sexual assault
  • 17% reported physical assault
  • 39% reported witnessing violence

Also, many reported experiencing multiple and repeated traumatic events.

It is important to learn how traumatic events affect children. The more you know, the more you will understand the reasons for certain behaviors and emotions and be better prepared to help children and their families cope. Learn more about the types of trauma and violence and types of disasters.

Signs of Child Traumatic Stress

The signs of traumatic stress are different in each child. Young children react differently than older children.

Preschool Children

  • Fearing separation from parents or caregivers
  • Crying and/or screaming a lot
  • Eating poorly and losing weight
  • Having nightmares

Elementary School Children

  • Becoming anxious or fearful
  • Feeling guilt or shame
  • Having a hard time concentrating
  • Having difficulty sleeping

Middle and High School Children

  • Feeling depressed or alone
  • Developing eating disorders and self-harming behaviors
  • Beginning to abuse alcohol or drugs
  • Becoming sexually active

For some children, these reactions can interfere with daily life and their ability to function and interact with others.

Impact of Child Traumatic Stress

The impact of child traumatic stress can last well beyond childhood. In fact, research shows that child trauma survivors are more likely to have:

  • Learning problems, including lower grades and more suspensions and expulsions
  • Increased use of health services, including mental health services
  • Increased involvement with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems
  • Long term health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease

Trauma is a risk factor for nearly all behavioral health and substance use disorders.

What Families and Caregivers Can Do to Help

Not all children experience child traumatic stress after experiencing a traumatic event, but those who do can recover. With proper support, many children are able to adapt to and overcome such experiences.

As a family member or other caring adult, you can play an important role. Remember to:

  • Assure the child that he or she is safe. Talk about the measures you are taking to get the child help and keep him or her safe at home and school.
  • Explain to the child that he or she is not responsible for what happened. Children often blame themselves for events, even those events that are completely out of their control.
  • Be patient. There is no correct timetable for healing. Some children will recover quickly. Others recover more slowly. Try to be supportive and reassure the child that he or she does not need to feel guilty or bad about any feelings or thoughts.

Review NCTSI’s learning materials for parents and caregivers, educators and school personnel, health professionals, and others.

Treatment for Child Traumatic Stress

Even with the support of family members and others, some children do not recover on their own. When needed, a mental health professional trained in evidence-based trauma treatment can help children and families cope with the impact of traumatic events and move toward recovery.

Effective treatments like trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapies are available. There are a number of evidence-based and promising practices to address child traumatic stress.

Each child’s treatment depends on the nature, timing, and amount of exposure to a trauma.

Review Effective Treatments for Youth Trauma – 2004 (PDF | 55 KB) at the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

Families and caregivers should ask their pediatrician, family physician, school counselor, or clergy member for a referral to a mental health professional and discuss available treatment options.

More Ways to Find Help

Many U.S. agencies and other groups offer research and support related to child traumatic stress.

Government Websites

Other Organizations

Last Updated: 06/08/2015