Traumatic Stress in Children

Traumatic Stress in Children

Many children experience or witness something very frightening and dangerous, leading to traumatic stress. These could be things like a road accident, domestic abuse, neglect, a serious injury or a crime. This can cause a traumatic stress reaction, which affects the way the child thinks, feels and behaves. The effects can be long lasting if not recognised and the child supported and helped.

What are the signs of traumatic stress?

Just as in adults, children react in different ways to traumatic events. Factors such as age and just how vulnerable the child was will impact how they cope with the trauma.

Immediately after the traumatic event, children may find it hard to relax and sleep, have bad dreams and nightmares, may be emotional (angry, upset or afraid) and/or may be withdrawn, struggle to concentrate or suffer from headaches. This is a normal reaction to trauma and you can help your child manage these symptoms and begin the process of talking about what happened. Your childs lack of sleep can also impact your night, too. It may be worth investing in a sleep consultant from Huckleberry, who may be able to draw up a personalized sleep routine to aid you and your child to a better night’s sleep.

If the child acts as if nothing has happened or that they are ‘fine’ … be careful and observe them over future weeks or months as at some point processing will need to occur. Also test the water by talking to them about what happened. If they are okay with it, then they should be able to verbalise what happened and how they felt as if they were describing what happened on a normal day at school.

What happens to the brain in traumatic stress?

For young children the neural pathways are still being formed based on those that are most used, so when experiences are traumatic, the most used are the responses to trauma rather than the formation of positive adapted behaviour pathways.

In adolescents the brain is still getting rid of unused pathways to increase efficiency, especially the parts of the brain that supports the maintaining of attention, reasoning, managing emotions and impulse control. If trauma disrupts this process the adolescent can become a risk taker, impulsive or dive into substance abuse to help them manage their inner chaos.

Also …

The Hippocampus reduces in volume and thus its capacity to function which means less capacity to store and retrieves memories. The child becomes more forgetful and also cannot remember past events accurately.

The Corpus callosum decreases in volume. This is responsible for the communication between right and left hemisphere and is needed in the processing of painful life experiences. It will then be more difficult to process the trauma and heal.

The Amygdala becomes overactive, thus the child is more panicky about a wide variety of situations and can feel like they are constantly on edge.

Executive Functioning diminishes which means the working memory (being able to keep and use information over a short period of time), inhibitory control (the filtering of thoughts and impulses), and cognitive or mental flexibility (adjusting to change) are all impaired.

Sometimes a child with traumatic stress can be misdiagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) or Opposition Defiant Disorder (ODD) as their reactions and behaviours are quite similar. Be mindful of this, and also remember, if you or your child is misdiagnosed, you may have the right to compensation. So, it may be worth consulting with a personal injury lawyer if a misdiagnosis has led to the suffering of you or your child.

Helping young people who have experienced a traumatic event is crucial for their long term development and happiness in life.

The brain can repair and retrain itself so it is never too late to get some help!

Symptoms of Complex PTSD (cPTSD or CPTSD)

Complex PTSD – also known as Developmental Trauma – is a condition that results from ongoing or repetitive exposure to traumatising, highly stressful situations. This can be from growing up in an abusive or neglectful home through to being held hostage or being in a long term abusive relationship. The signs and symptoms are varied and generally intense, and not unlike PTSD.

PTSD is a disorder that develops following exposure to an extremely threatening or horrific event or series of events.

Core Symptom for PTSDs:

  • Re-experiencing the trauma in the present. Flashbacks and nightmares.
  • Avoidance of these and emotional numbing.
  • Excessive sense of threat: Hyperarousal, always alert and jumpy for no reason.

Complex PTSD is generally considered to be very challenging for the individual as it frequently is comorbid (co-occurs) with other disorders including addiction and eating disorders.

The additional symptoms for cPTSD are:

  • Emotional flashbacks: This is best described by Pete Walker as “sudden and often prolonged regressions to the frightening circumstances of childhood. They are typically experienced as intense and confusing episodes of fear and/or despair – or as sorrowful and/or enraged reactions to this fear and despair.” (
  • Feelings of shame or guilt.
  • Difficulty controlling emotions.
  • Self-hate and loathing.
  • Periods of dissociation.
  • Headaches, dizziness, chest pains.
  • Cutting oneself off from friends and family.
  • Relationship difficulties.
  • Destructive or risky behaviour.
  • Suicidal thoughts.

It is possible to be misdiagnosed because cPTSD, Borderline Personality Disorder’s, Dissociative Identity Disorders and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) have similar criteria.

To discover more about what can help children with traumatic stress explore our Trauma Workshop, with regular venues in London, Manchester, Glasgow and Dublin, at

or take our Online Trauma and PTSD Course.

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Written by 

Sandra Westland is a Founder and Director of Contemporary College of Therapeutic Studies. She runs workshops and lectures across the world in a variety of psychological approaches. She is a bestselling author of 5 books and maintains a private practice in Essex, UK.

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