Defining Trauma and Child Traumatic Stress


Children and adolescents experience trauma under two different sets of circumstances.

Some types of traumatic events involve (1) experiencing a serious injury to yourself or witnessing a serious injury to or the death of someone else, (2) facing imminent threats of serious injury or death to yourself or others, or (3) experiencing a violation of personal physical integrity. These experiences usually call forth overwhelming feelings of terror, horror, or helplessness. Because these events occur at a particular time and place and are usually short-lived, we refer to them as acute traumatic events. These kinds of traumatic events include the following:

  • School shootings
  • Gang-related violence in the community
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Natural disasters (for example, earthquakes, floods, or hurricanes)
  • Serious accidents (for example, car or motorcycle crashes)
  • Sudden or violent loss of a loved one
  • Physical or sexual assault (for example, being beaten, shot, or raped)

In other cases, exposure to trauma can occur repeatedly over long periods of time. These experiences call forth a range of responses, including intense feelings of fear, loss of trust in others, decreased sense of personal safety, guilt, and shame. We call these kinds of trauma chronic traumatic situations. These kinds of traumatic situations include the following:

  • Some forms of physical abuse
  • Long-standing sexual abuse
  • Domestic violence
  • Wars and other forms of political violence


Child Traumatic Stress

Child traumatic stress occurs when children and adolescents are exposed to traumatic events or traumatic situations, and when this exposure overwhelms their ability to cope with what they have experienced.

Depending on their age, children respond to traumatic stress in different ways. Many children show signs of intense distress—disturbed sleep, difficulty paying attention and concentrating, anger and irritability, withdrawal, repeated and intrusive thoughts, and extreme distress—when confronted by anything that reminds them of their traumatic experiences. Some children develop psychiatric conditions such as posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and a variety of behavioral disorders.

While some children "bounce back" after adversity, traumatic experiences can result in a significant disruption of child or adolescent development and have profound long-term consequences. Repeated exposure to traumatic events can affect the child's brain and nervous system and increase the risk of low academic performance, engagement in high-risk behaviors, and difficulties in peer and family relationships. Traumatic stress can cause increased use of health and mental health services and increased involvement with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Adult survivors of traumatic events may have difficulty in establishing fulfilling relationships, holding steady jobs, and becoming productive members of our society. Fortunately, there are effective treatments for child traumatic stress.