Understanding Trauma in Children & Youth

Would you be able to recognize the symptoms of traumatic stress in children and teenagers? Do you understand the impact of trauma exposure on the developing brain and the effects on social, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral functioning? Do you know when and how to refer children and youth for trauma interventions in the community?

Fay and Krissie of KIFS recently attended a training at The University of Kentucky Center for Trauma and Children to expand their understanding of the effects of trauma on children and youth.

The training consisted of highlighting the 12 Core Concepts associated with trauma in order to help attendees better understand the lasting effects of trauma and how to recognize trauma associated behaviors. Traumatic events overwhelm a child’s capacity to cope and may elicit feelings of terror, powerlessness, and out-of-control psychological arousal. As caregivers it is important to understand the underlying causes of stress reactions that stem from trauma. Below is a recap of the training.

How Youth Respond to Trauma: Traumatic Stress Reactions

  • Intrusions - Nightmares and flashbacks

  • Avoidance - May spend a lot of energy to avoid feeling through suppression and then emotions come out in unexpected, sudden ways

  • Negative Alteration in Cognition & Mood - Inability to remember events around trauma, difficulty experiencing positive and/or joyful moments.

  • Hyperarousal/Reactivity - Jumpiness, problems sleeping, aggressive behaviors, self-destructive behaviors


  1. Complexity - Trauma experiences are inherently complex.

  2. Context - Trauma occurs within a broad context that includes children’s personal characteristics, life experiences, and current circumstances.

  3. Adversities - Traumatic experiences often generate secondary adversities, life stressors, and distressing reminders in children’s daily life.

    • Things, events, situations, places, sensations, and people that a person consciously or unconsciously connects with a traumatic event.

    • Hospitals, judges, police, social workers, sounds

  4. Reactions - Children exhibit a wide range of reactions to trauma and loss

    • Survival coping - a response to facing ongoing trauma exposure and having limited resources to draw on to cope with those ongoing threats.

      • Strategies are adaptive and offer self-protection in the moment and can include: Hoarding, poor hygiene, indiscriminate attachment, avoidantly attached

      • Over time, these strategies create difficulties in social, emotional and behavioral functioning.

      • Perceived as intentional, willfulness, stubbornness, indifference, and malice.

Even young children have “suitcases” that contain trauma reminders.

Even young children have “suitcases” that contain trauma reminders.


5. Danger - Danger and safety are core concerns in the lives of traumatized children

  • Human brain and body are geared to recognize and respond to danger

  • Danger takes priority over normal activities of daily functioning

  • Culture helps define the appraisal of threat and possible responses

  • Experience shapes the world

  • Restoration of safety

6. Family - Trauma experiences affect the family and broader caregiving system

7. Impact - Reducing the adverse impact of trauma

  • Structure and routine

  • Hobbies and talents

  • Coping skills

  • Consistency

  • Adult mentor

  • School

8. Development - Trauma and post trauma adversities can influence development - Read more: Child Abuse May Change Brain Structure and Make Depression Worse

  • When children endure multiple traumatic events over a long period they are likely to have multiple gaps in their development

9. Fight, Flight, or Freeze - Developmental neurobiology underlies children’s reactions to traumatic experiences

10. Culture - Culture is closely interwoven with traumatic experiences, response and recovery. Cultural influences include:

  • Meaning

  • Expression

  • Relationships

  • Historical trauma

11. Social Contract - Challenges to the social contract, including legal and ethical issues affect trauma response and recovery

  • How do people respond? Not respond?

12. Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) - Working with trauma exposed children can evoke distress in providers that makes it difficult for them to provide good care. STS is also known as compassion fatigue.

  • STS is complicated by work load and institutional stress but requires indirect exposure to traumatic material

  • STS can disrupt professional’s lives, feelings, personal relationships, and overall view of the world

    Sources of STS include:

    • Reading about an adolescent’s lengthy history of foster and residential placements

    • Witnessing a child engage in violent or sexual play themes

    • Suspecting a child is being sexually abused but being unable to substantiate

    • Hearing a child’s account of domestic violence in the home

    • Hearing about a child fatality at work

    • Removing a child who has been significantly injured

To learn more about traumatic stress, find resources, and connect visit The Center on Trauma and Children


Signs of STS:

  • Chronic exhaustion

  • Avoidance

  • Poor boundaries

  • Survival coping

  • Illness, headaches, tense muscles, stomachaches, sleep difficulties

  • Hypervigilance

  • Fear

  • Inability to embrace complexity

  • Social withdrawal, factionalism

  • Disconnection

  • Anger/Cynicism

  • Diminished self-care

  • Loss of creativity

  • Minimizing

  • Guilt

  • Hopelessness, helplessness, feeling overwhelmed

  • Insensitivity to violence and injustice

Nicolette Meade