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2 Questions Answered About Child Traumatic Stress

Traumatic Stress

Q1) What Is Child Traumatic Stress?

The common understanding of "trauma" often relates to incidents like car accidents or natural disasters. But trauma can happen in all kinds of situations. As psychologists, our systems for diagnosing a trauma require that the event involves actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence. This is what we sometimes call "Big T traumas,"...the official traumas that often lead to a diagnosis of PTSD. That being said, there are many events in children's lives that are hugely distressing and impactful but do not fall into this "official" trauma category. We may refer to these events as "Small t Traumas." Small t Traumas can result in similar symptoms as the Big T Traumas. Examples of Small t Traumas include bullying or a break up of a long-term relationship.

Thus, trauma involves events that have acutely impacted or threatened a child's emotional and physical well-being. Extreme occurrences like becoming a refugee, wars, acts of terrorism and natural disasters have been identified as traumatic events. In addition, traumas may involve witnessing or being involved in a major accident or incidents relating to community or family violence. What's more, trauma is also a result of experiences where a child is subject to psychological, sexual or physical abuse, scary or invasive medical procedures or a grievous injury. Moreover, experiences with a sudden loss of a loved one, deployment of a caregiver, or loss of a parent, can all result in lasting effects on a child's physical and emotional health. According to trauma statistics, 1 in every 4 children will undergo some traumatic experience before age 16.

Q2) What Are the Signs and Impacts of Child Traumatic Stress?

Children typically react both physically and psychologically when they have a traumatic experience. For instance, trauma in preschool children may show ups as having nightmares, experiencing fear of separation from parents or caregivers, loss of weight due to poor eating habits, and excessive crying or screaming. Whereas in elementary school children, the symptoms of trauma often manifest as restlessness, an increase in their heart rate, excessive sweating, feeling agitated and hyperalert, experiencing the feeling of "butterflies" in their stomach, and becoming emotionally upset. Furthermore, feelings of shame, guilt, and inability to focus can occur when a child is traumatized. Finally, middle and high school children often show symptoms that include substance abuse, self-harming behaviours, disordered eating, and feeling alone and depressed. All of the above can be signs that a child has experienced trauma.

Impact of Child Traumatic Stress:

Traumatic stress for children can occur in various ways and at any age. For some children, the signs of trauma show up in a very physical way. The child's point of view at the time of the event can significantly impact how they interpret, cope with, and remember a traumatic experience. How traumatic stress manifests will vary from child to child and depend on the child's age and developmental level.

Some of the ways trauma manifests in children are as follows:

● acting out at home or school

● being overly aggressive or withdrawn

● emotional difficulties, such as anxiety or depression

● sleeplessness or trouble falling asleep

● Learning problems, including lower grades and more suspensions and expulsions

● physical complaints, such as stomachaches, headaches or significant changes in eating habits.


Parents, educators and caregivers play an essential role in supporting the healthy development of children. This is particularly true when something traumatic happens to a child, and the family needs extra support. Being patient with the child while letting them know they are not responsible for the trauma they have experienced is a helpful way to start dealing with the situation. A supportive family environment is beneficial but often insufficient to find long-lasting solutions. Seeking the help of a trained child/teen psychologist can help your child to navigate through their trauma and learn helpful coping mechanisms, thus enabling them to heal and experience overall well-being.

If you're looking for help in managing some of these symptoms, working with a psychologist might be helpful for you. At Ward & Associates Psychological Services, we offer counselling in Sherwood Park. We specialize in individual counselling for adults, teens, and children and couples counselling and trauma counselling for first responders. We also offer online therapy for clients residing in Alberta. Contact us to learn more about our services or to book an appointment.

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