Trauma and Behavior: What You Need to Know

Children feel stress just like we do. They may experience stress from school, learning how to ride a bike by themselves, an upcoming performance, or traumatic events like natural disasters, being abused, neglected, or bullied. These events can overwhelm the child’s natural response to cope. Children may not recognize their anxiety and it may be hard to explain what they are feeling.  Signs of stress and anxiety in children often show up as changes in physical appearance or behavior. Remember, behavior has meaning and these changes just may be a signal for help.

Children who have experienced traumatic events need to feel safe. All parents want to provide a safe and loving home for their children. However, when parents do not have an understanding of the effects of trauma, they may see child as “acting out” and end up feeling frustrated themselves. By increasing your understanding of trauma, you can help support your child’s healing, your relationship with him or her, and your family as a whole. So how can you tell the difference between misbehavior and stress behavior?

What can trauma behavior look like?

This can be different for every child depending on age, developmental level, and the impact of the event. Your child may not react in the way you expect and others may not react until months later. Common reactions may include:

Withdrawal – such as loss of interest in activities, loss of confidence, and developmental regression

Preoccupation – needing to relive the experience, for example, through repetitive play or drawings, or nightmares

Anxiety – such as problems with concentrating or paying attention, attachment issues separation anxiety, sleep problems and irritable or self-destructive behaviors

Physical symptoms – such as headaches and stomach aches

How can I support my child during this time?

In the wake of a traumatic event, your comfort, support and reassurance can make children feel safe, help them manage their fears, guide them through their grief, and help them recover in a healthy way.

Here are some tips from the Children’s Bureau website:

  • Identify trauma triggers
  • Be physically and emotionally available
  • Allow some control
  • Listen
  • Respond, don’t react
  • Don’t take behavior personally. Your child isn’t “bad” or behaving this way on purpose.
  • Read a book that may be similar to your child’s situation

When you are able to relax and discover the REAL source of your child’s behavior, it can create an immediate shift in how you think about, influence, and relate to your child. Your anger and frustration can turn into compassion, empathy, and confidence in an instant—and that’s what makes the difference.


Additional Resources:

How Trauma Affects Children in School

About Child Trauma

Signs of Trauma in Children