Symptoms of Trauma According to Child’s Age

As I have written about trauma and its impact in children, some readers have asked what traumatic symptoms look like when a child becomes a teenager. So, with helpful information from the National Child Trauma Stress Network, let’s correlate some symptoms with specific age groups to establish a better picture of how trauma’s far-reaching fingers complicate a child’s life.

Recognizing symptoms of trauma in children according to age group

Teen male isolated and depressed
Children are often identified by labels that may reflect an inaccurate diagnosis and, consequently, provide ineffective solutions.

Too often, children are identified by labels that may reflect an inaccurate diagnosis and, consequently, provide ineffective treatment  solutions. Worse, the labeling could further escalate already present struggles and inhibit progress toward healing. Before we can prevent trauma and begin the movement toward identifying and healing trauma victims, it is helpful to curtail labeling and look beneath the surface to recognize some behaviors that may occur as a result of childhood traumatic experiences. 

According to the Child Welfare Trauma Toolkit, some symptoms are more apparent as children grow and develop.

Symptoms of trauma according to age group

Abused preschooler
A traumatized preschooler may experience strong startle reactions, night terrors, or aggressive outbursts.

Young children who have experienced trauma may:

  • Become passive, quiet, and easily alarmed
  • Become fearful, especially regarding separations and new situations
  • Experience confusion about assessing threat and finding protection, especially in cases where a parent or caretaker is the aggressor
  • Regress to recent behaviors (e.g., baby talk, bed-wetting, crying)
  • Experience strong startle reactions, night terrors, or aggressive outbursts

School-age children with a history of trauma may:

  • Experience unwanted and intrusive thoughts and images
  • Become preoccupied with frightening moments from the traumatic experience
  • Replay the traumatic event in their minds in order to figure out what could have been prevented or how it could have been different
  • Develop intense, specific new fears linking back to the original danger
Depressed Asian teen girl with shaved head
Anxiety and depression can be symptoms of trauma in teens.

In response to trauma, adolescents may feel:

  • That they are weak, strange, childish, or “going crazy”
  • Embarrassed by their bouts of fear or exaggerated physical responses
  • That they are unique and alone in their pain and suffering
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Intense anger
  • Low self-esteem and helplessness

Traumatic reactions in adolescents

These trauma reactions may in turn lead to:

    • Aggressive or disruptive behavior
    • Sleep disturbances masked by late night studying, television watching, or partying
    • Drug and alcohol use as a coping mechanism to deal with stress
    • Over- or under-estimation of danger
    • Expectations of maltreatment or abandonment
    • Difficulties with trust
    • Increased risk of re-victimization, especially if the adolescent has lived with chronic or complex trauma
Adolescents may use alcohol or drugs in an attempt to avoid overwhelming emotional and physical responses to their traumatic experiences.

Adolescents may use alcohol or drugs in an attempt to avoid overwhelming emotional and physical responses to their traumatic experiences. For these teens:

  • Reminders of past trauma may elicit cravings for drugs or alcohol.
  • Substance abuse further impairs their ability to cope with distressing and traumatic events.
  • Substance abuse increases the risk of engaging in risky activities that could lead to additional trauma

Substance abuse and high risk behavior are signals

Particularly as we become aware of adolescent substance abuse, high risk behaviors and other extreme emotions, it is important that we learn as much as we can about why teens are blatantly pursuing risky and defiant behaviors and if such behavior is the result of trauma or a series of traumatic events. 

It is unfortunate that in an attempt to change adolescent behavior we often shame them without realizing the true or underlying cause. We cannot help them heal without first recognizing the reason they commit such behaviors. Once the cause is known, it is possible to determine which approach will effect change and healing. However, we need to ask for help from professionals who are trauma-informed and trained to administer the appropriate approaches to heal trauma.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

Information taken from Deepening Trauma Awareness, Diane Wagenhals, 2008.  All rights reserved.  Licensed materials.

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