Knowing and understanding what are typical reactions to trauma and traumatic events are very important for anyone that might be struggling. Sometimes you wonder about how your body and your mind is reacting to things but don’t want to say much because you don’t want others to think you’re “losing it”. It can be a relief to know that those seemingly crazy thoughts, lack of memory and marathon sleeping sessions mixed with marathon insomnia phases are rather normal under the circumstances. For kids, this information is even more difficult to find. Part of the challenge is the fact that most adults simply don’t know and become worried themselves. After something happens, it’s pretty normal to watch your child for every little indicator that something is wrong. What’s also normal is parents and caregivers becoming stressed because they are scared they may do something to make things worse.
The following is a brief list of some typical developmental responses to a traumatic event. This is not a comprehensive list but just a brief overview of things that you might see in your child or that they might think or experience after something happens.
For kids 1 – 6 years old;
It’s common for kids at this age to develop generalized fears. Everybody and everything and unrelated things; some that are specific, some that can’t be identified. It’s also common to see an exaggerated startle response to loud or unusual noises. You might also notice an avoidance or alarm response to specific trauma related reminders. This involves sight (seeing something that may remind the child – could be an object or a color or a shape), physical sensation, smell, sound etc.
Separation fears, clinging to caregivers is also very common. While frustrating for some caregivers, it is also relatively short-lived. It’s also common to see what’s called regressive behaviours. This may be evidenced through a loss of speech, thumb-sucking, wetting themselves and so on. Hate an anger statements are also not unusual.
Somatic symptoms (stomach aches, headaches, nausea, muscle twitches). You might also see uncharacteristic fussiness, uncharacteristic crying and neediness, whiny, irritable, and / or moody behaviour. Sleep disturbances are common.
For kids 6 – 11 years old;
Feelings of responsibility and guilt. Almost all kids of all ages feel this way but they are particularly vulnerable at this age range. It’s also common to see a fear of feelings – obvious anxiety and fearfulness; discomfort with feelings, particularly those associated with revenge.
This age is common for repetitious traumatic play and retelling –acting out the events through their behavior and actions. Sometimes you may witness some aggressive acting out, angry outbursts, hate or anger statements. Very common to hear magical explanations to fill in the gaps in understanding. There is also an increased likelihood in this age range to discuss gruesome details of an event.
All kids to do this as well but again, this is particularly noticeable at this age range that kids will pay close attention to parental responses and anxieties. Kids will take their behavioural cues from their parents’ behavioural responses. You may also see some separation anxiety with primary caregivers
Somatic complaints (headaches, stomach aches, muscle aches, illness etc.).
For some kids you might see a withdrawal from others and quieting behaviour. They may start sitting off by themselves, being very quiet and unresponsive, withdrawing from others. Sometimes there may be a regression to behavior of a younger child (may see thumb-sucking, cuddling a blanket, regression in verbal abilities).
For kids 12 – 18 years old;
Like it or not, kids are self-consciousness and worried about how they look to others, what others think of them. As a result, you might see performance type behaviours as they are responding to their own internal world as well as to the event around them. Performances do not negate the feelings or thoughts that are being expressed. It’s common to see a pre-occupation with the impact that this may have on their life (who will drive them to class now?).
For some teens, you will see a withdrawal and what appears to be depression. Some will try hard to distance themselves from their feelings of shame, guilt and humiliation. This is often done through things like projection and other defense mechanisms that put the blame on the other person. This may also be done through physically trying to distance themselves from the event and “making it go away”.
It is common to see worries, fears, and anxieties about the safety of others – including people who are not in danger in any way or may not have been there. Some kids will display risk-taking and acting out behaviours, which can be dangerous. Many report a discomfort with feelings, particularly ones of revenge and vulnerability. Hate and anger statements are also common.
Some kids feel a need to stay busy and / or a need to retreat from others. Both of these responses are utilized as a self-soothing defense and a way to calm inner turmoil. Neither is wrong if it works to help calm the adolescent without putting them at risk.
A lot of teens will display a denial of the impact of the event while they try to figure out a way to process what has happened and regain a sense of control over their lives. Sleep and eating disturbances are very common.