Trauma is defined by Perry (2011) as

‘A psychologically distressing event that is outside the range of usual human experience, often involving a sense of intense fear, terror and helplessness.’

An alternative explanation is that: 

‘Trauma happens when any experience stuns us like a bolt out of the blue; it overwhelms us, leaving us altered and disconnected from our bodies. Any coping mechanisms we may have had are undermined, and we feel utterly helpless and hopeless. It is as if our legs are knocked out from under us.’

 (Levine, 2006)  


Trauma can impact a child’s body, brain, memory, emotions, relationships, learning and behaviour. 

What is trauma?


Trauma can be defined as something that happens which causes terror and powerlessness. When a child experiences events that make them feel powerless and terrified such as constant anger in the home, an accident, domestic abuse, abuse, neglect, being fostered, adoption and the transitions (the reason for the adoption), rape, a parent with mental health issues, a family member being seriously or terminally ill, the death of a parent or sibling etc.


The good news is that children can recover from the impact of trauma when we can understand more about it. 


Children often feel powerless because they want to ‘fix’ the problem but they realise they can’t. Sadly children also tend to blame themselves when things go wrong because they have an natural, inbuilt sense that they are the centre of their world (normal and healthy for young children) so when things go wrong, they draw the conclusion that it must be their fault.  This adds to their feelings of fear and means that it can be powerful to say and repeat in gentle conversations with them that it isn’t their fault. 

Telling us what happened

Some traumatic events are such that the adults involved with the child know what happened to them (usually divorce, parent with mental health, car crash, hospitalisation of parent, parent in prison, death in the family etc). Other experiences eventually come to light because someone else tells a caring adult or the child themselves finds the courage to tell.   At other times the child and the parents may not be aware that the child is experiencing trauma because it could be a familiar home setting to the adults- such as neglect or domestic abuse or there could be threats and reasons that the child just can’t tell anyone.


Children don’t often tell people what is going on unless there is a reason to. They tend to try and make sense of it through their play. 


How do we know if they are traumatised by what’s happened?

Children don't often know how to let us know verbally how they feel when they are frightened and so we learn to recognise that it is their behaviour that often tells us instead. When children are scared they often don't even realise that they are frightened because coping mechanisms kick in to protect them from feeling some of these feelings. Instead they can exhibit some things on the following list of trauma symptoms:

  • Cry a lot
  • Whine and moan more than usual
  • Have anxiety issues
  • Have problems with wetting, soiling
  • Irritable, restless, ants in their pants
  • Get angry, aggressive
  • Have separation anxiety, get clingy
  • Become withdrawn, they don't talk much
  • Sad, lacking in energy, lose interest in activities
  • Have friend and social problems
  • Struggle to concentrate at school
  • Act as it they are much younger than their physiological age
  • Hate you and love you
  • Have troubles with sleeping
  • Have low self esteem
  • Self-harm
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Eating disorders
  • Numbness, frozen 
  • Difficulty sleeping

This list is not exhaustive, but shows the diversity of how children can respond to feeling very scared. 

Written by Betsy de Thierry (2018)


 Abuse and neglect in childhood affects a child’s mind, their brain and it's responses, their spirit and the ability to have hope, and their relationships with others.