A traumatic event is an experience that causes physical, emotional, psychological distress, or harm. It is an event that is perceived and experienced as a threat to one's safety or to the stability of one's world.
A traumatic event may involve:
- A move to a new location
- Death of a friend, family member, or pet
- Loss of trust
- Physical injury or illness
- Separation from parents (perceived abandonment)
- Terrorism or mass disaster
- Violence or war
At the time of a traumatic event, the person experiencing the event might feel numb and, therefore, not know how to respond. Later on, memories of the trauma can bring out feelings of helplessness, fear, even horror -- like you are reliving the trauma all over again. To try to resolve such feelings and move forward after a trauma, it is helpful to discuss the events and feelings, especially with a child.
After a traumatic event, the person experiencing it needs time, support, and a sense of safety to re-establish trust. Experiences that have traumatized a person will usually cause anxiety. In children, signs of anxiety might include an increased need for physical and emotional closeness, fear of separation, difficulties sleeping, loss of appetite, bedwetting, or changes in interactions with others.
Many events are experienced by children as traumatic. In fact, many adults do not realize that seemingly harmless events may be very traumatic for a child. For example, a child with a broken arm may assume that his arm cannot be fixed, yet adults may have no way of knowing that the child is even imagining such a thing.
Parents can reduce the negative emotional responses to potentially traumatic events by preparing the child. Discussions, visits, pictures, videos, and play are activities that can introduce the upcoming experience to the child. Health care professionals are a good source of information regarding events that may be traumatic for the child, such as receiving injections (shots), or other experiences that are new, painful, or frightening.
Children may need the opportunity to talk about traumatic experiences and related emotions with their parents. They should be encouraged to do so, if they wish. Children who have witnessed traumatic events may misbehave, cry, or appear sad. If the child shows persistent behavior changes, the family should consult a mental health specialist.
Levetown M. Communicating with children and families: from everyday interactions to skill in conveying distressing information. Pediatrics. 2008;121:e1441-e1460.
Review Date: 4/26/2010
Reviewed By: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.