Children can sometimes experience or witness something traumatic such as a road accident, a serious injury, a crime, threats of violence, domestic violence, neglect, etc. This can cause a traumatic stress reaction which affects the way a child thinks, feels and behaves.
A distinction is often made between simple and complex or developmental trauma.
Types of trauma
Simple trauma is usually a one-off traumatic event whereas complex or developmental trauma can be sustained through prolonged or repeated events such as abuse, neglect, violence, poor attachments, exposure to prolonged poverty or exposure to unsafe communities etc. It may be helpful, to read this section in tandem with the section on attachment.
Sometimes a sudden traumatic event (terrorism, a natural disaster like flooding, a catastrophic accident) can cause ‘collective trauma’ – which can affect a larger group of children and their families.
Trauma can change the way children see their environment, the people in it and how they ‘fit in’. It can affect children’s emotions, memory, behaviour and ability to learn.
Spotting the signs
There will be a wide range of responses to trauma.
- There may be physical symptoms such as sleep problems, headaches/stomach pains, or going back to things they did at a younger age such as bedwetting and thumb-sucking.
- Children may become preoccupied with thoughts and memories of the event, be unable to concentrate and be irritable.
- Trauma can also be associated with problems in children’s relationships with fellow pupils and adults.
- Some children can experience symptoms of trauma through listening to stories told by children (or parents) who are directly affected by a traumatic event.
Find out more about trauma
MindEd is a free educational e-learning resource for professionals on children and young people’s mental health. These sessions aim to help staff better understand how trauma impacts on children.
Be supportive and build positive relationships.
If a child wants to talk, focus on them and listen. Buidling positive relationships will encourage children to talk. However, don’t force them to talk.
Some children might use creative methods, such as drawing or playing with their toys to communicate their experience. Be attentive without pressurising them to explain what they’re doing.
Children need routine, attention and reassurance to help them feel safe again.
Sometimes children (and adults) may need professional counselling support after a traumatic experience to help them get back to normal and prevent or reduce the harmful effects of prolonged stress.
What schools can do
With the right support, children can recover from trauma, especially if the adults they are in contact with are understanding and responsive to their needs.
A number of universal school programmes, and targeted, small group-based programmes are proven to help prevent children being overwhelmed by thoughts and feelings as well as helping them to learn effective coping skills in the face of challenging events. These programmes also help children connect with, label, express and process emotions in a healthy way which is an important protective factor for mental health.
Relationships in the classroom/school that are built on trust, safety and security can also be protective when children are affected by trauma – encouraging them to open up and talk.
Some children need a little extra help, either through school pastoral care/counselling support, through referral to the school nurse or through referral to community-based support.
Concerned about a child?
If you are worried that a child is at risk involve your designated safeguarding lead as a matter of priority who will contact the parents/carers and other services as necessary. If the child is at immediate risk, ensure that they are taken to their GP or A&E as a matter of urgency, depending on the severity of the concern.Read more