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Traumatic Stress responses

Traumatic experiences can create strong emotions and strong physical reactions in children and young people. This might include feelings of overwhelming helplessness, terror and fear as well unpleasant psychical symptoms of extreme anxiety and panic.

Viewed though a "trauma lens" these thoughts, feelings and behaviours are understandable reactions to traumatic events that are a child's attempts to survive and to try and make sense of often frightening and confusing events.

Reactions to traumatic events can differ and range from relatively mild to severe traumatic stress responses – many recover with the help and support of family, friends and community. Infants, toddlers, children and young people can all develop traumatic stress responses and the responses can vary depending on the child’s age and developmental level. Traumatic stress can fundamentally impact a child’s daily life and ability to function. Traumatic stress responses can vary and are different in very young infants, children and young people (see PTSD/CPTSD tab). The following can be responses to witnessing or experiencing traumatic events or experiences:-

  • Disrupted Sleep and nightmares
  • Thinking about the traumatic event all the time
  • Avoiding people, places, activities, smells, objects  or any reminders or the trauma
  • Feeling scared and ‘on guard’
  • Being  distressed by triggers of the traumatic event
  • Concentration may be affected as well as  retaining information.  Both can impact on learning
  • Reluctance to go to school
  • Feeling a mixture of emotions including anger, sadness, shame or guilt
  • Experiencing physical symptoms like aches and pains, headaches or a sore stomach
  • Re-experiencing the trauma through flashbacks or nightmares as if the event is still happening in the present
  • Being more ‘clingy’ and needing more reassurance
  • Being more irritable
  • Saying self critical things
  • Behaving like a younger child – socially, behaviourally or cognitively
  • Loss of former independence
  • Expressing suicidal thoughts or self-harming
  • Older children may use drugs or alcohol, behave in risky or impulsive ways, or engage in unhealthy sexual activity.

Reactions to traumatic events can vary ranging from relatively minor and mild, to severe and impairing and can impact on mental health, behaviour, social and educational functioning and physical health and wellbeing.

Mental Health

There are 2 mental health diagnoses that are associated with exposure to traumatic events called Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and Complex Post traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) (For further information on these please see the Resources tab)

There can be other co-existing mental health difficulties including anxiety, depression and prolonged grief. There can be an increased risk of self harm and suicide.


There can be other co-existing behaviour problems such as defiant or oppositional behaviours and conduct disorder.

Social and educational functioning

Social functioning may be affected. 1 in 2 young people with PTSD under the age of 18 experience social isolation and loneliness. 1 in 4 young people with PTSD are not in employment, education or training.

Physical health

Many young traumatised children complain of physical symptoms such as headaches and stomach aches with some studies reporting an increase in the risk of developing eating disorders, chronic pain and musculoskeletal problems.

Trauma can have a long lasting impact.

Some young people who have experienced traumatic experiences are at increased risk of experiencing mental health problems later in life , physical health problems, relationship difficulties and are more likely to experience further abusive experiences.

Recovery from trauma is common and possible.

Not everyone who has witnessed or experience a traumatic event(s) will develop traumatic stress symptoms. Many recover with the help and support of family, friends and community and the importance of predictable, safe and nurturing relationships cannot be overstated.

  • There are many things that young people can do to build their own resilience.
  • There are many things that parents and carers can do to aid with recovery.
  • There are many things that Professionals and Front line Workers can do to help infants, children and young people to heal from the effects of witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event(s). 
  • Effective Specialist Therapy Treatments are available for children and young people who develop PTSD and CPTSD.

Each and every contact with an infant, child or young person, no matter how brief, is a precious opportunity to impact positively on a child's recovery and promote healing. There are multiple, daily opportunities to impact positively on a child or young person's emotional wellbeing and to held build resilience and promote healing.

When and how to seek help:

It is important to know when to seek support and how to seek additional targeted or specialist support to aid with healing and recovery ( please see the Getting Help tab for further information)