It is estimated that 26 percent of U.S. children will experience a traumatic event before the age of 4 years.

Childhood Trauma

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, childhood exposure to trauma is a major public-health problem in the United States. It is estimated that 26 percent of U.S. children will experience a traumatic event before the age of 4 years.

Research shows that childhood trauma can have immediate negative effects including decreased school attendance, declining grades, drug abuse and criminal behavior. Children with early exposure to traumatic events are at greater risk for mental-health diagnoses such as post-traumatic stress, ADHD, mood disorders and aggression. In addition, research reveals long-lasting harmful effects including heart disease and depression.

Reactions to Trauma

Children’s reactions to trauma vary by age and stage of development.

6–10 years old: Children may fear going to school and stop spending time with friends. They may have difficulty paying attention, perform poorly in school and engage in aggressive behavior. Some children may regress and act younger than their age.
11–19 years old: They may refuse to discuss the traumatic event, complain of physical ailments, start arguments at home or school and resist structure or authority. Older teens may deny their feelings to themselves and their caregivers. Teenagers may also engage in risky behaviors.

Helping Children Cope

The good news is that children and youth are usually quite resilient. Educators can help students cope and recover from traumatic events by:

  • accepting all feelings and reminding them that it is okay to feel sad, upset or stressed;
  • encouraging them to express their emotions through talking, writing, drawing and music;
  • monitoring and limiting media coverage of traumatic events and natural disasters;
  • helping them to recognize the good that can come out of trauma, such as heroic actions, community organization and help from family and friends.

With support from caring adults, children can thrive and recover from trauma. The most important way to help is to make sure they feel connected, cared about and loved.