What is Child Trauma?

What is Child Trauma?

“Child trauma” refers to a scary, dangerous, violent, or life threatening event that happens to a child (0-18 years of age). This type of event may also happen to someone your child knows and your child is impacted as a result of seeing or hearing about the other person being hurt or injured. When these types of experiences happen, your child may become very overwhelmed, upset, and/or feel helpless. These types of experiences can happen to anyone at any time and at any age; however, not all events have a traumatic impact.

Note: Not all overwhelming or life threatening experiences are considered traumatic. Children interpret their unique experiences differently. A life experience that is traumatic for one child might not be traumatic for another.

What are Traumatic Events?

A traumatic event is a scary, dangerous, or violent event. An event can be traumatic when we face or witness an immediate threat to ourselves or to a loved one, and it is often followed by serious injury or harm (NCTSN Parents and Caregivers Website). When this happens it can cause emotions such as fear, loss, or distress.  Sometimes people experience these types of strong negative emotions in reaction to the experience or because the person may not have the ability to protect or stop the event from happening. Reactions to a traumatic event can also have lasting effects on the individual’s daily functioning including possible changes in a child’s mental, physical, social, emotional, and/or spiritual health (See traumatic stress below for more information).

The image below illustrates some potentially traumatic events. This is not a comprehensive or complete list. Your child or a child you know may have experienced something that is not on this list, but the event could still qualify as or feel traumatic. But remember, not all events may be considered traumatic for each individual.

For this list and more information about traumatic events check out the NCTSN’s Resources for Parents and Caregivers webpage. Additionally, for more detailed descriptions of different traumatic events, click check out the NCTSN’s Definitions of Different Trauma Types document. 

While many of the examples listed above may be more easily thought of or identified as traumatic, other events might be less obvious when thinking about the potential of traumatic impact. For example, many families might need to relocate due to job changes, financial hardship, or military involvement. While these are fairly common occurrences for some families, they could have a lasting traumatic impact. It is also important to remember that all youth in foster care, independent of why they might have entered foster care, have experienced changes in caregivers and living situations, and it is important to take into consideration how these events may have made an impact.

What are ACEs?

Another term that you may hear a clinician use when referring to difficult or scary experiences is Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs. The ACE study is an ongoing research study that explores the relationship between childhood trauma experience and long-term medical health and social consequences. Results show that approximately 65% of children experience at least 1 adverse event during their childhood and that nearly 40% of children experience at least 2 or more ACEs.This study further has repeatedly found that the greater number of ACEs a child has been exposed to, the greater he/she is at risk for developing physical and mental health problems throughout their lifespan (e.g. heart and lung disease, alcoholism, risk for initimate partner violence, drug use, poor academic or work performance, depression, suicide) ACEs include many traumatic experiences, but are broader in nature. The original ACEs study included the following 10 adverse childhood experiences

  1. Physical abuse
  2. Sexual abuse
  3. Emotional abuse
  4. Physical neglect
  5. Emotional neglect
  6. Mother treated violently
  7. Household substance abuse
  8. Household mental illness
  9. Parental separation or divorce
  10. Incarcerated household member

Since the original study, the list has expanded to include additional types of adverse experiences. For more information about ACEs, please visit acestudy.org.

What Is Child Traumatic Stress?

If your child has reactions that impact his/her daily life after a traumatic event, these responses are called child traumatic stress. These reactions may show up in different ways, such as changes in your child’s behavior (such as more being irritable, withdrawn, or acting younger than his/her age), difficulties in interactions with others, problems or changes in sleeping or eating patterns, or school performance. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) states, “Child traumatic stress occurs when children and adolescents are exposed to traumatic events or traumatic situations that overwhelm their ability to cope.”

When these stress symptoms develop, they happen automatically (i.e., are not in your child’s conscious control) as your child attempts to manage negative emotions (like fear) that emerges in response to memories of the event. The difficulties or stress symptoms can  present immediately or show up later. They may also  continue for days, weeks, or months after the traumatic experience and/or may  resurface at different periods throughout a young person’s life. Some children may be more susceptible to developing traumatic stress reactions than others.To learn more about this click here: http://www.nctsn.org/resources/audiences/parents-caregivers.

Signs and Symptoms of Traumatic Stress

When your child experiences traumatic stress, he or she may act in an uncharacteristic or not typical way for him or her. These reactions may continue for days, weeks, or months after the traumatic experience. They also could emerge weeks or months after the event took place. Remember these are normal reactions to your child having survived an overwhelming life experience.

The signs and symptoms of traumatic stress look different in each child and at different ages. Below is a diagram to help family members understand traumatic stress symptoms by age. Diagram recreated from the Understanding Trauma webpage within NCTSN’s Resources for Parents and Caregivers website. 

If your child has experienced a traumatic event and/or if you recognize any concerning symptoms or behaviors, you are not alone. Don’t hesitate to ask for help. Click on the “What is Trauma Therapy?” tab to learn more about healing options for your child, your family, and you.


Another way to understand and define trauma may be by remembering the “Three E’s of Trauma,” developed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA). The “Three E’s of Trauma” are: Event, Experience, and Effect.


The “Event” refers to the threat or actual experience of harm which may occur once or multiple times to your child. Some events may include abuse, neglect, death of a loved one, or bullying.

Caregiver Pause and Reflect: Did an event take place in my child’s life?


The “Experience” refers to your child’s unique perception of the event described above – remember, an event that is scary or overwhelming to one child might not be for another child. In this domain, you are looking to understand your child’s potential experience or perception of the event. Some feelings that your child might experience include shame, isolation, betrayal, fear, etc.

Caregiver Pause and Reflect: How might my child feel about the event that occurred? Could my child be experiencing any of the emotions listed above or any other negative feelings? What could the event mean to him or her? Could the event have changed the way my child feels about the world, others, or about him or herself?


The “Effect” refers to the impact the event and experience has upon your child. The impact can be short-term or long-term and it may come on immediately or show up later. The effect and experience of the event might result in  new or increased problems in social or family relationships, changes in sleep, eating,or mood, and difficulties thinking, concentrating, and/or expressing emotions.

Caregiver Pause and Reflect: How has my child changed after the event and in what ways? Does my child exhibit any of the examples listed in the chart above? Or have you noticed any other changes?

For more information on the Three E’s of Trauma, click HERE.

Additional Resources

Understanding Traumatic Stress in Children (2006)


Understanding Child Traumatic Stress: A Guide for Parents (PDF)


Trauma and Your Family (PDF)


Mental Health Connection – Recognize Trauma


National Child Traumatic Stress Network – Trauma Overview (Video, 12:23 minutes)


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