How Can I Tell If My Child Has Been Traumatized?



(Read Part 1:  What Can a Parent or Caregiver Do to Help a Child in Distress?)

How Can I Tell If My Child Has Been Traumatized?  Any unusual behavior that begins shortly after a severely frightening episode or medical procedure, particularly with anesthesia, may indicate that your child is traumatized. Compulsive, repetitive mannerisms – such as repeatedly smashing a toy car into a doll – are an almost sure sign of an unresolved reaction to a traumatic event. The activity may or may not be a literal replay of the trauma. Other signs of traumatic stress include:

• Persistent controlling behaviors

• Regression to earlier behavior patterns, such as thumb-sucking

• Tantrums, uncontrollable rage attacks

• Hyperactivity

• Tendency to startle easily

• Recurring night terrors or nightmares

• Thrashing while asleep

• Bed-wetting

• Inability to concentrate at school, forgetfulness

• Excessive belligerence or shyness, withdrawal or fearfulness

• Extreme need to cling

• Stomachaches, headaches or other ailments of unknown origin

To find out whether an uncustomary behavior is indeed a traumatic reaction, try mentioning the frightening episode and see how your child responds. A traumatized child may not want to be reminded of the pre-disposing event, or conversely, once reminded, will become excited or fearful and unable to stop talking about it.

It is also important to realize that children who have outgrown unusual behavior patterns have not necessarily discharged the energy that gave rise to them. The reason traumatic reactions can hide for years is that the maturing nervous system is able to control the excess energy. By reminding your child of a frightening incident that precipitated altered behaviors in years past, you may well stir up signs of traumatic residue.

Reactivating a traumatic symptom need not be cause for concern. The physiological processes involved, primitive as they are, respond well to interventions that both engage and allow them to follow the natural course of healing. Children are wonderfully receptive to experiencing the healing side of a traumatic reaction. Your job is simply to provide an opportunity for this to occur. A few minutes spent with your child in an appropriate way can not only minimize the chance of lasting effects, but actually make the child more resilient to life’s stresses and later extreme events.

For more information visit and read the book which provided the selection: Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body by Peter A. Levine, Ph.D., available in paperback, e-reader, and audio formats.

NEXT:  The “Ordinary Magic” Remedy for Abuse, Neglect and Trauma in Childhood

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