What is trauma?

Trauma refers to an overwhelmingly distressing, negative or intense event that overwhelms a person’s capacity to cope. Children and young people can be traumatised if overwhelming events happen directly to them, or if they witness or hear about them happening to somebody else.

Traumatic events usually occur beyond a person’s control, and include:

  • Physical or sexual attacks
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Natural disasters
  • Gang violence
  • Serious accidents
  • Sudden deaths of a family members or close friends

Racism and discrimination have also been shown to cause a traumatic response in some children and young people.

Whether a child or young person experiences an event as traumatic will be personal to them and will depend upon many factors such as previous experiences, current environment, and level of support from others.

Complex trauma

Complex trauma describes the experience of repeated traumatic events during childhood or adolescence. These events typically occur within the context of interpersonal relationships. For example, neglect, maltreatment and abuse are commonly characterised as complex trauma.

Most people experience some form of trauma in their lives, but many overcome these challenges. Experiencing multiple traumatic experiences makes overcoming them more challenging. Many of the traumas that affect people occur when they are children or adolescents.

Impact of trauma and complex trauma

Feeling upset or confused after a scary or traumatic experience is normal, our bodies and minds respond in a variety of ways. Our brains react to traumatic experiences by trying to keep us safe, we go into a kind of survival mode. These responses will usually settle as a child or young person spontaneously recovers.

Responses to trauma in children and young people can include feelings of:

  • Shock
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Loss
  • Isolation
  • Guilt / shame
  • Denial
  • Self-blame
  • Numbness
  • Irritability

Children and young people may experience:

  • Feeling anxious in situations that are similar to the trauma
  • Intrusive thoughts and images
  • A lack of concentration and decreased attention
  • Sleeping problems and nightmares
  • Psychosomatic effects such as stomach problems, headaches, feeling sick, bed-wetting, changes in appetite, and ulcers
  • Feeling sad and withdrawn, worthlessness and hopelessness
  • Difficulty with managing emotions
  • Experiencing sudden strong feelings and not knowing why
  • Finding it hard to trust others
  • Feeling that things are not real
  • Difficulties with remembering events and feelings
  • Feeling disconnected from feelings and situations, “zoning out”
  • Experience of being an outside observer of or detached from oneself (e.g., feeling as if “this is not happening to me” or as if one were in a dream)

However, it is important to note that every child or young person will experience trauma differently. Responses may also differ depending on a child’s age.

What can you do?

Most of the time, how you feel will improve gradually and by itself. Sometimes though, your difficulties might continue, meaning that you might need some extra help.

Here are some things that can be helpful to do after a traumatic experience:

  • Remind yourself that you are safe and that the traumatic experience is in the past.
  • Talk to someone you trust about what happened, but only if you feel that you want to.
  • Try and go back to school and a normal routine as soon as possible.
  • Eat as healthily and as regularly as possible.
  • Get plenty of sleep, rest and relaxation.
  • Do the things that you enjoyed before the scary or upsetting thing happened, such as interests and hobbies and spending time with friends.
  • If you are feeling upset or distressed, it can help to breathe deeply. Breath in for 4 seconds and out for 6, or pretend to smell a flower and then blow out a candle.
  • If you feel like the scary or upsetting thing is happening again, it can help to notice what is going on around you. Look for the smallest object in the room.

Early intervention after a traumatic experience

Intervening early after a child or young person has experienced a frightening event can help to improve resilience and reduce the development of post-traumatic reactions. For further information, follow the link below:

Trauma and mental health difficulties

Many children and young people will not suffer any long-term effects from traumatic or frightening experiences. However, such experiences may affect children’s brains in ways that make them more vulnerable to future mental health problems.

When a child or young person experiences a stressful event, their brain adapts to keep them safe in that particular environment. These changes can make children more vulnerable to mental health problems in ordinary environments and can affect the way that they cope with stress and form and manage relationships.

Trauma can teach children to be constantly on alert, making them quick to react to perceived danger. Also, children might be wary and untrusting of others, which can affect them accessing support and building trusting relationships.

While most children and young people will recover after experiencing trauma, some will experience mental health difficulties. These difficulties will vary from person to person. Sometimes, difficulties will meet the threshold for a mental health diagnosis, such as anxiety, depression or conduct disorder. It is always good to bear in mind how these difficulties might be related to the trauma.

Two psychiatric diagnoses that are particularly associated with trauma are post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex PTSD.

Who can help?

If in doubt, make an appointment to talk to your GP.

You can also get in touch with CAMHS or consider a self-referral via the links below:

Contact CAMHS

Should I make a referral to CAMHS?

Other source of support:

  • NHS 111 for out of hours support
  • Childline (0800 111)
  • Samaritans (116 123)
  • Text SHOUT to 85258
  • Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) on 0800 585858
  • HOPELINEUK on 0800 068 4141
  • Text YM to YoungMind’s Textline on 85258

Further resources

Short Films About Mental Health – Trauma PTSD – Dr Hannah Stratford, of Oxford Health

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Page last reviewed: 20 December, 2023