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Helping a child heal and recover


Trauma in childhood occurs because of an event or series of events. A child who has experienced trauma often feels helpless and pushed beyond their ability to cope. Children experience trauma differently depending on their age, personality and experiences.

Trauma can have a serious effect on children as young as babies, toddlers and pre-school children. It is incorrect to assume that because of their age they do not notice or remember a traumatic event. Young children are far more vulnerable than adults in experiencing trauma because they are dependent on others for safety and care, and their brains and bodies are still developing.   

Age group Are observed to have Behavioural responses
Babies—toddlers (birth to around 2 years)
  • unusually high levels of distress when separated from their parent or carer
  • a look of shock, as if they are frozen and very alert
  • a numb appearance as if they are cut off from what is happening around them
  • difficulty in soothing and decreased interest in play and interactions with parents and carers
  • in babies, increased irritability, crying more often and needing to be held and cuddled frequently
  • in toddlers, showing uncharacteristic aggression, losing language skills or eating skills.
  • avoidance of eye contact
  • loss of physical skills such as rolling over, sitting, crawling and walking
  • fear of going to sleep, especially when alone
  • nightmares
  • loss of appetite
  • making very few sounds
  • increased crying and general distress
  • unusual aggression
  • constantly on the move with no quiet times
  • sensitivity to noises.
Pre-school children (around 3–5 years)
  • new or more clingy behaviour such as constantly following a parent, carer or staff around
  • anxiety when separated from parents or carers
  • new problems with skills like sleeping, eating, going to the toilet and paying attention
  • shutting down and withdrawing from everyday experiences
  • difficulties enjoying activities
  • being more jumpy or easily frightened
  • physical complaints with no known cause such as stomach pains and headaches
  • blaming themselves and thinking the trauma was their fault.
  • return of bedwetting
  • speech difficulties
  • stomach-aches
  • under or overactivity
  • difficulties in paying attention
  • fear of darkness, animals, monsters and strangers (beyond what would be expected at this age)
  • loss of appetite or overeating
  • nightmares
  • crying
  • sleeping difficulties
  • unusual aggression
  • repeatedly talking about the traumatic experience
  • nervousness
  • irritability.

(Beyond Blue, 2019)

A child who has been abused or neglected may be fearful, anxious or sad, may struggle at school, wet the bed, have nightmares, self-harm or express distress and trauma in other ways.

Some children, especially those who suffered early abuse and neglect, may show less obvious yet more damaging signs of trauma, which can include:

  • difficulty in making deep attachments to others
  • difficulty in feeling empathy for others in distress
  • difficulty in expressing or experiencing feelings
  • anti-social behaviours and attitudes.

Because these more damaging signs of trauma affect a deeper level of a child’s development, it can be harder for them to recover. Healing takes place when a child is in a familial environment and has repetitive, specific, predictable experiences of love, support, comfort, safety, affection, acceptance, understanding and nurturing, especially when they are upset, distressed or fearful.

Watch the following video on links between trauma, the brain and relationships, and on helping children heal from trauma.  Think about how we can support a child who has been affected by trauma and neglect.

Trauma, Brain and Relationship: Helping Children Heal

‘Sometimes it gets a bit hectic so you need to  get out of the house. There needs to be a place you can go if you need time out, to get away. A place where parents know you are safe. Not like a refuge ‘cause those places are full on, somewhere you can go and chill out. Not for a long time but maybe a few days like a week if you need it, or if your parent is in hospital or not doing so well. Some place you can go where you trust them and  you can just do the stuff you need to do.’

Young woman, age 16

(Who Cares- Moore, Noble Carr, McArthur 2010)

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