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2005 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 10, No. 3
June 2005

How Children and Adolescents React to Trauma

The following are typical reactions to a traumatic event and are not necessarily indicative of PTSD or another disorder. Source of the following: NIMH, 2001

Ages 5 and younger: may fear being separated from parent, crying, whimpering, screaming, immobility and/or aimless motion, trembling, frightened facial expressions, and excessive clinging. May regress—return to behaviors exhibited at earlier ages (e.g., bed-wetting, fear of darkness). Children of this age are strongly affected by the parents’ reactions to the traumatic event.

Ages 6 to 11: may show extreme withdrawal, disruptive behavior, and/or inability to pay attention. Regressive behaviors, nightmares, sleep problems, irrational fears, irritability, refusal to attend school, outbursts of anger and fighting are common. Child may complain of stomachaches or other bodily symptoms that have no medical basis. Schoolwork often suffers. Depression, anxiety, feelings of guilt, and emotional numbing or “flatness” are often present as well.

Ages 12 to 17: may exhibit responses similar to those of adults, including flashbacks, nightmares, emotional numbing, avoidance of reminders of traumatic event, depression, substance abuse, problems with peers, and antisocial behavior. Also common are withdrawal and isolation, physical complaints, suicidal thoughts, school avoidance, academic decline, sleep disturbances, and confusion. May feel extreme guilt over his or her failure to prevent injury or loss of life, and may harbor revenge fantasies that interfere with recovery.

References for this and other articles in this issue