What is trauma?

Trauma can be a one-time event such as: an accident, injury, or a violent attack, especially if it was unexpected or happened in childhood. Alternatively, it may be a prolonged event or a series of events such as: living in an area of high crime, living in a war zone, a life-threatening illness, bullying, domestic violence, or childhood neglect.

Other experiences such as surgery, the sudden death of someone close, the breakup of a significant relationship, or a humiliating or deeply disappointing experience, especially if someone was deliberately cruel, may also cause physical, emotional, spiritual or psychological trauma. Even in the absence of experiencing a traumatic event directly it is increasingly evident that individuals may experience their nervous systems being overwhelmed due to seeing horrific images on social media and news bulletins etc. leading to traumatic stress.

Traumatic events are processed subjectively by different individuals due to the differences in their upbringing and previous life experiences. Therefore, people react to similar traumatic events differently; what may be mildly upsetting to one individual may be completely terrifying to another.

Types of trauma

Complex trauma often develops as a consequence of the cumulative effects of a repetitive traumatic experience within a particular time frame, relationship and/or specific setting.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can develop after a person has been through a terrifying ordeal in which intense physical harm occurred or was threatened. PTSD sufferers experience persistent and frightening thoughts and memories of their ordeal.

Whatever the cause, traumatization may occur whenever an individual has experienced an extremely stressful or disturbing event that’s left them feeling helpless and emotionally out of control.

The effects of trauma

Psychological trauma can leave sufferers struggling with persistent and upsetting emotions, memories, and anxiety. It can cause feelings of shock and denial and numb, disconnectedness where sufferers feel unable to trust other people. When bad things happen, it can take them some time to get over the pain and feel safe again, leaving lasting, unpredictable feelings such as: anger, sadness, despair, guilt, shame, isolation and hopelessness. They may also experience flashbacks and physical symptoms, such as nausea and headaches.

Managing trauma

The most important first step in reducing anxiety and managing trauma is to create a safe and predictable environment where adults adopt a calm and reassuring tone and presence. Dr Bruce Perry talks about the 6 R’s - rhythmic, repetitive, relational, rewarding, respectful activities that are relevant to the age of the child – for example: walking, drumming, singing, clapping, colouring in, breathing, throwing a ball back and forth - that may help children to regulate their physiological state.

Breathing becomes shallow and rapid when anxiety sets in, so deep abdominal breaths can help children calm down. It is important that adults remain calm and encourage children to go to them for reassurance and support. The use of non-judgmental, active listening strategies can help adults to understand how a child may be experiencing a situation, and what may be confusing or troubling to them. It is important for adults to let children know it is OK to tell them how they are feeling at any time. Adults should remain calm and not share their own anxieties with children.

It is important to maintain routines, boundaries and rules as much as possible in order to reassure children that life will be okay again. It is also important to help children to enjoy themselves by encouraging them to engage with activities and play with others. In this way a sense of normality can be restored.

It is important to share factual information about an event with children who are affected by trauma, as it is important that they establish the facts from a safe and trusted adult who will answer their questions honestly and with sensitivity. It is also important not to assume that children and adults are concerned about the same things. Conversations can be initiated by an adult at opportune moments when there are natural openings for discussion. Open questions, that allow the young person to respond or decline are better than directive ones.

Access to media coverage of news and disturbing events should be restricted or even stopped altogether, as seeing such material may make these events seem to be ongoing. Children who believe bad events are temporary can more quickly recover from them.

Children cope with trauma in different ways. Some might want to spend extra time with friends and relatives; some might want to spend more time alone. Therefore, it is important to allow them to know it is normal to experience a range of emotions including: anger, guilt and sadness, and to express things in different ways - for example, a person may feel sad but not cry. The emotions that a young person experiences should be acknowledged, named and validated and not judged, dismissed, minimised or denied. It is okay to answer, “I don’t know” as not every situation has a solution or an answer.

What children need most is someone whom they trust to listen to their questions, accept their feelings, and be there for them. Adults should not worry about knowing exactly the right thing to say — after all, there is no answer that will make everything okay.


Find out more about attachment

What is attachment and why is it important? The quality of attachment that an infant develops with a specific caregiver is largely determined by the caregiver’s response to the infant when the infant’s attachment system is ‘activated’ 


Find out more about resilience

‘The single most common factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable and committed relationship …. ’.


Join ARC

By joining The ARC you will become part of a growing community who are all committed to developing best practice by sharing their learning about attachment and trauma.