3 Everyday Situations That Seem Like No Big Deal But Can Be Traumatic for Kids
While parents want to do all they can to shield their children from negative experiences, many kids witness or experience traumatic events from a young age. In the U.S., 68 percent of children seen in pediatric health settings have been exposed to at least one traumatic event, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
Potentially traumatic events—including violence or abuse, an incarcerated household member, or having a family member attempt or die by suicide—that occur before age 17 are known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Yet experts say there are also everyday stressful or upsetting experiences a child may encounter that aren’t typically considered ACEs but can still potentially cause long-term grief.
"Any event that results in children feeling a loss or feeling personally threatened can be felt as a trauma," says Mary Rourke, Ph.D., director of Institute for Graduate Clinical Psychology and associate professor at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania.
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Common Events That Can Be Traumatic
Bullying, accidents, injuries, isolation, and academic failures are examples of events that may have a traumatic impact on a child, says Jeanne M. Felter, Ph.D., a trauma clinician, founder of a trauma counseling graduate program, and faculty member in the Department of Counseling and Behavioral Health at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. In short, for an event to be "traumatic,” a child needs to see the event as physically or psychologically threatening, adds Dr. Felter. Its effects on the child’s functioning and well-being can then persist long-term.
Children with self-regulation challenges may be most at risk for becoming “overwhelmed with reactions to everyday events,” says Dr. Rourke, but “any child can occasionally experience an everyday event as catastrophic.”
These fall into three main categories, according to Dr. Rourke.
The loss of something concrete: This could look like a move, new car, loss of a special object, or even new furniture in the home. "While adults tend to experience loss related to people, children can—and often do—experience the loss of concrete things as traumatic," says Dr. Rourke. "Events such as moving to a new house, losing a treasured lovey, or even selling the family car—which comes up more than you'd think—can be experienced as a painful emotional loss to some children."
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A change in relationship: Examples of these include a sibling moving away or going to college; a conflict that doesn't include the child but is witnessed between extended family members; a best friend moving away; or a friend group changing.
A perceived threat to their own safety: "Changes in the world that don't immediately affect them but could make them worry that something bad could happen, such as current events, report of a violent event in the news, death of a classmate's parent," explains Dr. Rourke. These can scare the child “and make them worry that something like this could happen to them."
Signs a Child Is Struggling
Abrupt shift in behavior
"Children and teens may not always be able to let adults know they are struggling," says Jessica Ruiz, Psy.D., chief psychologist and director of behavioral health for Goodman Jewish Family Services in Davie, Florida. "An abrupt change in behavior is a good indicator that something is going on.”
Children may change their eating and sleeping patterns, have difficulty paying attention or concentrating, seem more fragile, or become easily emotional. “Children may also withdraw socially or stop participating in activities they used to enjoy,” adds Dr. Ruiz.
Reacting in a larger than normal way
Seeing your child having a meltdown days after an event occurred can be an indication that something isn't right. "If they got on the wrong school bus or did something embarrassing in front of their classmates, it could cause some discomfort and anxiety. That’s a normal response to living in the world,” says Gayle Cicero, Ed.D, a clinical assistant professor at the School of Education at Loyola University Maryland. “But if those experiences cause them to lash out in anger or cry uncontrollably for days beyond the event, it may be time to have a deeper discussion.”
How Parents Can Best Respond
Learn about the effects of trauma
Experts say it’s important for parents to become educated on the impact of trauma, adversity, and stress on the developing brain and body. "Having a deeper understanding of the child’s experience and its impact on functioning allows parents to engage more empathically and sensitively with their child, and to provide appropriate resources, support, and interventions to help them heal,” says Dr. Felter.
Make children feel heard
Whether they've lost a lovey or are contending with a bully, parents will do well to acknowledge their child's feelings. "Adults can tend to be dismissive when kids have big reactions to events that feel benign, but telling kids that their reactions are silly or overblown does not achieve these goals and can make their reactions worse," says Dr. Rourke. "It is very important to let kids know that we see their distress and can help them manage it."
Create a safe space
Cultivating peace of mind for kids by assuring their safety is critical. "Listen to the child and work to understand their reaction," says Dr. Rourke.
Say you traded in your old car for a new one, which has triggered a feeling of loss and insecurity for your child. You can say, "I hear that you feel so sad that we don't have our old car. I miss the car, too. Sometimes, it is hard when we get new cars." Then model an empathic and reassuring way of coping, adds Dr. Rourke. In the case of the new car, a parent can say, "Here is how I will remember our car and all of the fun things we had. How will you remember the car? Should we draw or take a picture?"
The next step: After a while, shift your child's attention to less distressing topics. "This teaches them how to put boundaries around their emotional reactions," says Dr. Rourke. "Children who truly do have a traumatic reaction to an event will continue to revisit their emotional reaction to the event. Expecting this and responding to a child's reaction consistently will help them to move through their reaction."
The Bottom Line
Common situations like an academic failure or a small accident can sometimes be traumatic for a child and cause long-term grief if not handled properly. So if you notice your child has a shift in their behavior or stressing over something that happened days ago, make sure to be supportive and work with them to move forward.