What everyone ought to know about trauma

This blog was originally posted in 2015 and updated in August 2020.

Anyone can experience trauma at any time in life

Some effects of trauma can be immediate and obvious … others can take time to appear.

Trauma describes the impact of an event, or a series of events, that leaves someone feeling helpless and pushed beyond their ability to cope. Events that children might find traumatic include:

  • accidents and injuries
  • serious illness
  • natural disasters
  • war
  • assault and threats of violence
  • domestic violence
  • neglect or abuse.

Parental or cultural trauma can have a traumatising effect on children. For example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children still feel the impact and effects of the Stolen Generations’ experiences.

Trauma affects young children…they notice and remember

Trauma can affect all aspects of a child’s development. There are many different responses to trauma. How individual children are affected and how they respond to the same or similar experiences can be vastly different. Children notice or remember traumatic events even if they can never fully articulate it with words.

Young children’s rapid learning and development also means it can be difficult to determine when children under the age of five are experiencing a traumatic stress response.

Identifying signs of trauma can become clearer through close observation of children and collaboration between families, carers and educators.

What you can watch for

  • Children experiencing physical symptoms e.g. stomach-aches
  • Children returning to an earlier stage of development, e.g. bedwetting
  • Often young children tend to express themselves through play and behaviour (e.g., clinging to parents, sleeping difficulties, acting out or withdrawing, re-enacting aspects of the traumatic event)
  • Sometimes a child will seem to be recovering well, but may then have a delayed response weeks or months later.

Four ways adults can help

Families and educators can all help young children recover from a traumatic event by:

  1. Tuning in and being responsive. Help children tune into the way they are feeling. Noticing and then finding words to describe feelings can be hard. Taking the time to listen, talk and play helps children start to tell or show how they are feeling.
  2. Listen empathically when the child wants to talk about the event. This helps the front brain to make meaning and understand what happened and supports regulation and recovery.
  3. Provide consistent and predictable routines. Maintaining routines and environments provides a sense of safety and security. The more familiar the routine, the more settled the child.
  4. Access outside support. Establish links with community agencies or trauma experts who can support children, families and educators.

Managing your own reactions

Adults experience a range of feelings when they are caring for children exposed to traumatic events. They may feel overwhelmed by the child’s trauma and reactions. They could also be having their own traumatic stress responses to this event or an entirely different event.

Finding ways that encourage adults to seek support and reduce their stress helps them continue to be effective when offering support to children who have experienced traumatic events.

Be You provides educators with knowledge, resources and strategies for helping children and young people achieve their best possible mental health. This article was first published by KidsMatter (now known as Be You) in 2015.

Be You

Early Childhood Australia’s Be You team is a highly qualified and experienced multidisciplinary team of professionals committed to promoting and supporting positive mental health and wellbeing in the early years. Together, with Be You partners, Beyond Blue and headspace, the ECA team support educators in implementing the Be You Professional Learning and continuous improvement processes across early learning services and schools.

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