Michelle Barratt Psychology - Brisbane Child Clinical Psychologists


Children, Adolescents and Trauma

Childhood or adolescent trauma can change everything for a child. Trauma experienced in a child's life can come in the shape of many forms. When a parent knows their child has experienced a trauma, it can become extremely difficult for them to see this, and at times feelings of sheer helplessness can pervade their every being. Not knowing how to support and protect your child from further psychological or physical harm can be heart wrenching.

Keep In Mind

Parents need to keep in mind that there are thousands of different types of events that can be experienced and determined by a child as traumatic or considered as a traumatic event. What might be traumatic for one child might actually not be so for another. However, fundamentally trauma occurs when a sudden, extraordinary, external event overwhelms an individual's capacity to cope and master the feelings brought up in the person by the event.


Often the pure nature of a trauma which can often cause horror and feelings of helplessness to be blended in together, can lead developmental processes to be hindered or delayed.

Of course children have the capacity to process trauma in completely different way to adults, and to make it even more complicated, the age of the child has a large bearing on how a child will process a trauma. Whether we are Christian or not, traumatic events are traumatic events, and how well children process traumas can depend largely on how well those around them are supporting the child at this time.

  1. A trauma is an extraordinarily frightening event that can overwhelm a victim with feelings of terror and helplessness. Feeling unable to cope against the force of terror, the child finds it impossible to face the events of the trauma, which can create memorable emotional pain, confusion, and behavioural disruption.

  2. The experience of a trauma is without care, forcefully imprinted on a child's memory in ways that everyday experiences are not. Children struggle with lingering thoughts, feelings and visual images of a trauma long after he event is over and their safety has been assured.

  3. Traumatic memories are hard to shake and are distressing. These memories and feelings intrude in children's daily lives in alarming and disruptive ways. Traumatic memories can be set off by some random event triggering a reminder of the previous trauma they experienced, and can often occur willy-nilly and unwelcomed in the child's daydreams or thoughts. Often nightmares ensue and the traumatic event will feel unshakable.

  4. Children experience dread that the trauma will recur and have difficulty believing that it will not be repeated. They often use their play to help them master their experiences. The child's efforts to control and master events over which they feel helpless are often unsuccessful, leaving them anxious and unrelieved.

  5. Trauma causes psychological wounds. Healing from wounds requires time and depends heavily on the understanding, support, and protection provided by parents and important other caretakers.

  • Any sudden Threat of Safety creating feelings of Vulnerability and Fear

  • Accidental injury and severe illness

  • Catastrophes and Disasters

  • Physical and Sexual Abuse

  • Interpersonal and Community Violence

  • The Child as a Witness: Observation as Source of Trauma

  • Traumatic LossSources of Re-traumatization – for example if there is anything around the child’s environment that may remind them of the incident – often this can re-trigger the trauma for them

  • When Trauma Involves the Criminal Justice System



Remember, each child's encounter with trauma is unique. Generally, children react o psychological trauma quite rapidly, showing some strain within a few days of the event. Some children however, show no immediate signs of trauma and appear to be unfazed in the long run. Unfortunately, regardless of a child's first reactions, there is the high probability and more often than not tendency for traumatic memory to resurface unpredictably over time, causing distress and disruption for a child. The 'time-bomb' effect needs to be considered by parents who find that their child's behaviour is initially free of any signs of traumatic impact. Studies have shown therefore, that some of these symptom-free children will develop delayed responses, particularly in situations that might trigger or resemble the traumatic event they experienced. Some of the trauma behaviours you might recognize in your child might be the following:


  1. Developed Fears and Anxieties

  2. Sudden Panic or Distress

  3. Separation Anxiety: When children fear separation from parents or other trusted caretakers

  4. Psychological Reactivity: When children appear to be "wired" or hyper-alert , and generally nervous or watchful.

  5. Fear Denial: Some children will deny all day long that there is nothing to deny, and then suddenly when it comes to going to bed - will collapse in terror of the dark.

  6. Behavioural Regression: Children typically react to stress, mild or severe, with a temporary setback in age-appropriate skills and behaviours.

  7. Toileting Accidents

  8. Experiencing Unwanted Images & Thoughts.

  9. Loss of Pleasure in Enjoyable Activities

  10. Retelling of the Traumatic Incident

  11. Withdrawal and Constriction

  12. Sleep-Related Difficulties

  13. Personality Changes

  14. Complaints of Aches and Pains

  15. Misinterpretation of the Cause and Meaning of a Trauma

  16. Anniversary Reactions

  17. Behavioural Signs of Sexually Abused Children: There are many, if any concern about sexual abuse is felt about a parent, seeking professional help/support/advice is advised to be sought immediately.



Author: Michelle Barratt

           Clinical Psychologist

Child and Adolescent Trauma


35 Wondall Road


Qld 4178

Tel: 0401 924 331 

Fax:  (07) 3009 0553


Suite 37, Level 1 Benson House,

No. 2 Benson Street, TOOWONG,

Qld 4066.

Tel: 0411 731 516

Fax: (07) 3009 0075


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Michelle Barratt is a Fellow of the Clinical College at the Australian Psychological Society.