Responding to Child Trauma

Provide education and hope

  • Convey an expectation of full recovery
  • Help child and family
    – understand expected/normal trauma reactions
    – identify and use their existing coping skills
    – know when to ask for additional help

Match care to child needs and phase of recovery

Immediately after trauma:

  • Attend first to basic needs: safety, shelter, reuniting family
  • Assess initial responses and arrange to follow up over time
  • Support parent, family, and community efforts to
    – provide safe, developmentally appropriate, culturally responsive recovery environment
    – reduce ongoing exposure to stressors/secondary traumas
    – reestablish normal roles and routines
    – activate support among kinship networks and spiritual and community systems

Any time after trauma:

  • Allow children to express feelings if they want to
  • Help parents and other key adults to
    – be aware of and manage their own reactions
    – listen to and understand the child’s reactions
  • Assess risk factors for persistent adverse reactions
  • Assess needs that may warrant intervention, such as
    – severe or persistent distress, numbing, or impairment
    – reduced capacity of family/community to support child
    – self-destructive or violent behaviors

When treatment is warranted:

  • Provide (or refer for) effective trauma-focused treatment
  • Respect child and family readiness for treatment
  • Keep doors open for future treatment

Understand child, family, and cultural perspectives

  • Listen carefully to child and family
  • Incorporate extended families and kinship networks
  • Ask about and respect cultural and spiritual perspectives on trauma, reactions, and interventions

Take care of yourself

  • Engage in self-care: emotional, physical, and spiritual
  • Know your limits
  • Watch for signs of secondary stress or burnout (e.g., exhaustion, numbing, distancing, overinvolvement with clients)
  • Enlist consultation or supervision as needed

Be Aware of Potential Pitfalls

  • Assuming that all children will respond to trauma in the same way
  • Pathologizing early distress or reactions
  • Conveying the message that trauma exposure inevitably results in long-term psychological damage
  • Assuming that all trauma-exposed children will have long-term damage or need treatment
  • Creating situations in which trauma-exposed children have little choice or control
  • Forcing children or parents to tell their story (but remember to listen carefully when they do)
  • Ignoring your own stress from trauma-focused clinical work

“Children and Trauma: Tips for Mental Health Professionals.” American Psychological Association (APA). Web. 01 Nov. 2010. <;.

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