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How to Recognize Signs of Trauma in Children

As caregivers, we all share the same goal of wanting our children to have a healthy and thriving future. However, children may still experience distressing or traumatic moments. By recognizing the signs of trauma early on, we can provide the necessary care to support our children’s well-being.

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Children may experience trauma when they’re faced with extremely difficult situations. This trauma can make it challenging for children to regain a sense of stability and safety, regulate their emotions, or have the ability to effectively manage and respond to their emotions in an appropriate way. Situations such as major accidents, natural disasters, violence, loss, or significant life changes can lead to a trauma response in children.

Recognizing trauma in children early on makes it possible to intervene and provide support right away. By addressing trauma in its early stages, it becomes easier to manage and can protect children from experiencing toxic stress. Toxic stress occurs when a child experiences ongoing adversity without the needed support from caring adults. It can lead to long-lasting physical, mental, and emotional effects that can disrupt their development and overall well-being.

Each child's response to trauma may be unique and influenced by their age, developmental stage, and more. It’s important to check in on their emotional and physical health and keep an eye out for any major changes in their personality or behaviors.

  • Emotional signs of trauma can include a big increase in their fear, anxiety, sadness, irritability, or a notable change in their overall mood. Children who have experienced trauma might have a much harder time managing their emotions. A sudden increase in outbursts, anger, or other heightened emotions can indicate that your child is having a hard time coping with a difficult situation.

  • Children who have experienced trauma might show sudden changes in their behavior. Behavioral signs to look for include a significant increase in aggression, withdrawal, avoiding activities they previously enjoyed, sudden and unexplained sleep disturbances, or uncharacteristic difficulties with concentrating. These behaviors may serve as unhealthy ways to cope with the trauma or attempts to regain a sense of control over their lives.

  • Physical signs of trauma can include a sudden increase in headaches, stomachaches, changes in appetite, weight fluctuations, or physical complaints without any apparent medical cause. 

  • Trauma can cause developmental regression, which means temporarily reverting back to behaviors, skills, or developmental milestones they had previously outgrown. It can be a way for them to cope with the impact of trauma and may include behaviors such as bed-wetting after potty-training, thumb-sucking, or speaking like a younger child. These regressions are usually temporary and part of the child's coping process.

  • Certain triggers, such as sights, sounds, or smells associated with the traumatic event can bring up distressing memories or flashbacks and can cause your child to experience intense fear, panic attacks, or vivid nightmares.

It’s always important to remember that children might show one or two of these signs from time to time, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve experienced trauma. Extreme and otherwise unexplained changes in your children’s emotional responses, behaviors, and personality are the most important indicators that something might be wrong.

If you do notice persistent or severe signs of trauma in your child, the best next step is to find a trauma-informed therapist, counselor, or mental health provider who specializes in supporting children. Seeking help is a sign of strength, as you find solutions to care for the well-being of your child.

Caregivers can also help protect children from experiencing the effects of toxic stress and help them cope with difficult experiences. The most impactful ways to support our children are by providing safety, security, consistency, and affection. This includes maintaining consistent routines, setting clear boundaries, offering predictable and secure relationships, promoting open communication, and showing physical affection such as giving hugs and cuddles. Find more tips for building your child’s resilience. You can sort through the tips based on how much time you have available and the age of your child.

First 5 California
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First 5 California
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