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Childhood Trauma: 5 Tips To Help Children Heal

Childhood trauma can be caused by adverse events, such as child abuse, neglect, accidents, natural disasters, physical injuries, or severe sickness.

Compared to adults, children are more susceptible to suffering harm from trauma with a higher risk of long-lasting consequences. The impact of psychological trauma is cumulative; the greater the number of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) encountered or the longer the exposure to trauma, the more negative health outcomes in adult life.​1​

female-leaning-against-the-wall-looking-down-in-hallway-with-blurred-background suffering from childhood truama

What Causes Childhood Trauma

Childhood trauma can be caused by adverse hardship or significant early life stress. Here are some common causes of developmental trauma.

Overt trauma experiences include:

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Verbal abuse
  • Physical neglect
  • Medical neglect
  • Bullying
  • Orphanage
  • Car accident
  • Sudden death of a parent
  • Forced separation from parents
  • Illnesses requiring extensive, invasive medical procedures
  • Witnessing domestic violence
  • Community violence exposure
  • Dysfunctional family
  • Intense parents fighting
  • Natural disaster

Some trauma is less obvious but can still cause severe psychological harm in children.

Covert abuse in children includes:

  • Emotional neglect
  • Aggressively yelling at kids
  • Parentification
  • Enmeshment
  • Malicious parental alienation


Common signs and symptoms of trauma in children include:

  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks
  • Fear and anxiety
  • Hypervigilance
  • Negative views or beliefs about themselves, others, or life
  • Dissociative daydreaming
  • Depression

Also See: Signs of childhood trauma in adults


When facing trauma, children instinctively activate the fight-flight-freeze trauma response. These are the five types of immediate trauma defense – alert, flight, fight, freeze, and collapse.

These reactions are involuntarily triggered in response to perceived danger without the need for conscious thought.

While life-saving, they may persist after the traumatic experience contributing to long-term issues, including the following.​2​

Brain development

Childhood trauma can change brain structure and functionality, particularly in the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. These brain areas play crucial roles in regulating emotions, learning, and memory processes.


Children who have experienced trauma are constantly on high alert, anticipating the next potential disaster. Their nervous system remains consistently heightened.

Academic performance

Traumatized children often struggle academically, as the trauma impairs their learning and memory capabilities. They also tend to have trouble staying focused and are preoccupied with observing their surroundings for danger.

Sleep disturbances

Traumatic experiences can lead to sleep problems, such as insomnia or nightmares, further lowering the child’s level of functioning.

Behavioral issues

Children facing chronic trauma often grapple with impaired emotional regulation, making it difficult to manage stressful situations. As a result, they may exhibit externalizing behaviors, such as aggression.

They are at an increased risk of developing behavioral disorders such as oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder.​3​

Insecure attachment

Attachment refers to the powerful emotional connection between a parent and child. Attachment trauma occurs when the process of forming this bond is disrupted. The child may, therefore, develop an insecure attachment, manifesting as an ambivalent, avoidant, or disorganized attachment style. Insecure attachment is associated with a wide range of adverse developmental outcomes.

Relationship difficulties

Child trauma survivors may harbor significant anger and exhibit aggressive tendencies, making forming and maintaining friendships challenging. A lack of social support further limits their resources for addressing emotional problems. Later in adulthood, they may also experience difficulty forming healthy relationships.


Traumatized children relive their trauma not only through their thoughts and dreams but also through their actions in daily life. They often unconsciously recreate or re-experience aspects of their traumatic experiences. For example, some children will repeat the traumatic scene repeatedly after the incident.


Interestingly, traumatized children often seek to avoid reminders of their trauma. They may avoid social situations that could trigger memories associated with their traumatic experiences.

Self-destructive behavior

Children with limited emotional regulation capabilities may need alternative methods to cope with stress. They might turn to substances or alcohol or engage in self-injurious behaviors to manage their intense emotions.

They are also more likely to be involved in risk-taking behavior such as lawbreaking, hitchhiking, defying authorities, unprotected sex, driving dangerously, carrying a weapon, etc.​4​

Mental disorders

Unresolved childhood trauma can lead to mental illness, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, social phobia, alcohol use disorder, etc. Some children, especially those who have suffered from complex trauma, are vulnerable to personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder.

Attachment disorders

Attachment trauma is one of the risk factors for developing reactive attachment disorder or developmental trauma disorder.

Physical health

There is a strong link between childhood trauma and immune system.

Prolonged childhood stress, also known as toxic stress, can impair the immune system, making children more susceptible to infections, allergies, and other immune-related health problems. When they grow up, these children are also more susceptible to autoimmune disease, heart disease, and other chronic diseases.

How to help children overcome childhood trauma

A compassionate and supportive primary caregiver can greatly impact a child’s life and significantly contribute to their recovery from childhood trauma.

In addition to seeking treatment for childhood trauma, parents can provide trauma-informed care in the following ways.

Safety and Trust

Relationships with caregivers play an important role in protecting children from the onset of trauma-related mental health conditions. 

Following a traumatic event, the main objective is to reestablish trust and ensure safety and security. A traumatized child might fear being alone and seek the presence of a compassionate adult. Be available for them as much as possible and assure them a sense of safety. If a parent was the source of trauma, keep them away from the child to protect them.

Research consistently indicates that supportive caregivers are protective factors, as children are less likely to develop posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms.​5​


Attachment trauma is one of the most prevalent types of childhood trauma. It is often caused by chronic, repetitive childhood abuse or neglect.

A child with attachment trauma might lose trust in adults if their caregiver was the source of their painful experiences. Hence, the non-offending parent must reinforce or reestablish the attachment relationship as the attachment figure.​6​

It is crucial to remain patient and understanding when providing care for kids, even if their mood or attitude seems to fluctuate or they struggle to obey authority figures. Be firm and kind.

Positive discipline

Children with unresolved trauma often exhibit anger and aggression. Harsh disciplinary responses from parents can reinforce the child’s negative perception of others and the world.

Regardless of whether it is labeled as abuse or discipline, research indicates that physical punishment results in traumatic symptoms.​7​

When parents use physical punishment on traumatized children, they are essentially adding to the child’s existing trauma. 

Moreover, punitive discipline doesn’t work. It elicits more aggression from children.​8​

So, replace punitive punishment with positive discipline.

Don’t avoid the topic when it naturally comes up

While children should not be pressured to talk about trauma, caregivers must not suppress it when the child brings it up.

Children are highly attuned to their parents’ responses to both the traumatic event and conversations about it afterward. They will avoid discussing it if they recognize that doing so distresses their parents. 

That means they may not have the chance to express their emotions or receive guidance on coping strategies. Parents might not hear much about the event and often underestimate the level of stress reactions their children experience.​9​

Allowing a child to express their emotions and discuss their experiences can aid them in processing the negative event. This also enables parents to hear the child’s perspective and address any misconceptions, such as self-blame, a common feeling among children following a traumatic incident.​10​

Co-regulate to teach emotional regulation

When children cry or grapple with challenging emotions, parents often attempt various methods to stop it, as though the crying itself is causing them pain.

Crying does not cause their sadness; it serves as a way for them to release it.

Traumatized children, particularly those with attachment trauma, tend to lack emotional regulation skills. When they cry, parents can co-regulate with them to help them learn self-regulation.

The objective is not to flip a switch and make them stop crying but to be present and supportive as they process their tears and difficult emotions, ultimately emerging calmer and more resilient.

Professional help for child and parent

Parents must seek effective treatment for children who have experienced trauma. Each child’s experience and emotional responses to trauma are unique. Professional help allows for customized treatment for children by considering the child’s specific needs, strengths, and vulnerabilities.

Mental health professionals can offer a safe and empathetic environment for the child to express their emotions, process their experiences, and develop healthy coping mechanisms.

If a parent also suffers negative impacts from the trauma, as in the case of losing a spouse, they will also require emotional support to cope with the situation. Young children often look to their parents for cues to react and cope with difficult situations. By seeking support and processing their own grief, parents can model healthy coping strategies and emotional expression for their children.

Also See: How do adults heal from childhood trauma


Here are more resources for parents of abused children.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network

Book on childhood trauma recovery
Trauma and Recovery by Judith Lewis Herman, M.D.

Free therapy in the US


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    Copeland WE, Shanahan L, Hinesley J, et al. Association of Childhood Trauma Exposure With Adult Psychiatric Disorders and Functional Outcomes. JAMA Netw Open. Published online November 9, 2018:e184493. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.4493
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    De Bellis MD, Zisk A. The Biological Effects of Childhood Trauma. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America. Published online April 2014:185-222. doi:10.1016/j.chc.2014.01.002
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    Price M, Higa-McMillan C, Kim S, Frueh BC. Trauma experience in children and adolescents: An assessment of the effects of trauma type and role of interpersonal proximity. Journal of Anxiety Disorders. Published online October 2013:652-660. doi:10.1016/j.janxdis.2013.07.009
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    Kerig PK. Linking childhood trauma exposure to adolescent justice involvement: The concept of posttraumatic risk‐seeking. Clin Psychol Sci Pract. Published online March 27, 2019. doi:10.1111/cpsp.12280
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    Afifi TO, Mota NP, Dasiewicz P, MacMillan HL, Sareen J. Physical Punishment and Mental Disorders: Results From a Nationally Representative US Sample. Pediatrics. Published online August 1, 2012:184-192. doi:10.1542/peds.2011-2947
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    Fletcher J. Positive parenting, not physical punishment. CMAJ. Published online September 4, 2012:1339-1339. doi:10.1503/cmaj.121070
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    Dyregrov A, Yule W. A Review of PTSD in Children. Child Adolesc Ment Health. Published online November 2006:176-184. doi:10.1111/j.1475-3588.2005.00384.x
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    Salmon K, Bryant RA. Posttraumatic stress disorder in children: The influence of developmental factors. Clinical Psychology Review. Published online March 2002:163-188. doi:10.1016/s0272-7358(01)00086-1

Updated on May 17th, 2023 by Pamela Li

Pamela Li is an author, Founder, and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University). Learn more


    * All information on is for educational purposes only. Parenting For Brain does not provide medical advice. If you suspect medical problems or need professional advice, please consult a physician. *