What is Child Trauma

child showing trauma
“Nobody Cares”

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

What are Traumatic Events?

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. 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.

Some potentially traumatic events include: A) physical, sexual, or psychological abuse and neglect (including trafficking) B) natural and technological disasters or terrorism C) family or community violence D) sudden or violent loss of a loved one and E) substance use disorder (personal or family). Your child may have experienced something that is not on this list, but the event could still qualify as traumatic.

While many of the examples listed above may be thought of or identified as traumatic, other events might be less obvious. For example, many families might need to relocate due to 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 therapist 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 10 adverse childhood experiences (please click on a previous blog to read more about these 10).

Since the original study, the list has expanded to include additional types of adverse experiences. For more information about ACEs, please read our blog specifically written on this subject.

Signs and Symptoms of Traumatic Stress

When your child experiences traumatic stress, he or she may act in an uncharacteristic or not typical way. 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 three E’s of trauma

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. 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.


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


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 bring about new or increased problems in social or family relationships, changes in sleep, eating, or mood, and difficulties thinking, concentrating, and/or expressing emotions.

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