Child traumatic stress occurs when children and adolescents are exposed to traumatic events or situations that overwhelm their ability to cope. Such events might actually be life threatening to the child or someone close to them, or it may appear very threatening through the eyes of the child.
Traumatic events can evoke powerful psychological and emotional reactions such as an overwhelming sense of terror, helplessness, and horror, as well as physical sensations such as a racing heart, trembling, dizziness, and loss of bowel or bladder control. In the aftermath of trauma, children may become jumpy and hypervigilant, may struggle with intrusive images related to the traumatic events, may be unable to sleep or have nightmares, and may find it difficult to concentrate or take in new information. Some children will simply shut down and appear to be very disconnected or withdrawn. These are all normal protective responses to an overwhelming experience.
Children are exposed to many kinds of traumatic events, both short and long term (chronic), including physical and sexual abuse; violence in the home or community; loss of loved ones; removal from home or family, intrusive medical procedures, major accidents or illnesses that the child cannot understand; persistent bullying, harassment and victimization, natural disasters; and experiences with terrorism or war.
Although exposure to traumatic stress is widespread, most children who receive the support of family and community are resilient, and do not suffer long-term developmental consequences. It is critical that the child's safety is assured (and reassured), their responses normalized, and that they are allowed to express their fears and concerns in a nurturing and accepting environment.