Everyone experiences upsetting and difficult situations – and it is normal to feel sad or stressed sometimes. When difficult things happen, lots of young people will be able to find the support they need and feel better with time. Sometimes, however, certain events or experiences can be traumatic – and these can leave a young person struggling with their mental health over a much longer period of time.
If you’re worried that your child is struggling after a trauma, the important thing to know as their parent is that you can provide an incredibly important part of the help they need – emotional support and a loving, safe relationship. By being there for them and finding the right professional help if they need it, you can make an enormous difference.
Trauma’ is used to describe both one-off events and things that are experienced over months or years, for example within a young person’s family or peer relationships. A traumatic experience often involves a threat to a young person’s physical or emotional safety, and a sense of being trapped, powerless or unsupported in the face of a perceived danger or in the time afterwards.
On our Parents Helpline, we hear about children and young people struggling with trauma when they have experienced or witnessed things such as:
- a violent or frightening event such as an assault or car accident
- domestic violence or abuse
- feeling unsafe at home
- being bullied
- losing a family member or friend to suicide, or a sudden death in the family
- going through a physical illness or time in hospital
- being exposed to frightening or inappropriate online content
Ultimately, whether or not an event or experience is traumatic for a young person depends on how it makes them feel as an individual. One child can find an event traumatic while another does not. The way we react to and experience what happens to us is shaped by all kinds of factors – from our personality to our life history, the support available to us, our relationships, our community and our culture.
Everyone responds to trauma differently
Every child and young person will respond differently to trauma. This means it can be difficult for you to spot the signs, or to see the links between a previous traumatic experience and your child’s current feelings and behaviour. Sometimes your child may not be aware of the links themselves.
Your child may show they are struggling immediately after a traumatic experience. But feelings, thoughts and behaviours may also emerge over time. There may be times when things feel intensely difficult, and then they might feel better for a while.
While there is no exhaustive list, these are some things you may see your child doing or experiencing following a trauma:
- having memories, thoughts or flashbacks that seem to come suddenly from nowhere (often called ‘intrusive’ thoughts)
- acting out or having angry or aggressive outbursts
- finding it difficult to calm down when they are distressed
- withdrawing from friends, family, school and activities they usually enjoy
- repeating certain behaviours or seeming agitated
- avoiding thinking about, talking about or being in situations which are related to a particular experience
- seeming sensitive or vigilant about anything that could be threatening
- seeming zoned-out or disconnected from themselves, their feelings and what’s going on around them
- having trouble remembering things
- not feeling able to sleep or having nightmares
- using drugs or alcohol differently to how they did before, or starting to for the first time
- eating significantly more or less
These responses are often a young person’s way of trying to manage and express difficult feelings. They may feel that some of these behaviours help them to survive or cope, make sense of what’s happened, or have a sense of safety and control.
Underneath these kinds of behaviours, a young person who has experienced trauma may be feeling:
- low or depressed
- bad about themselves
Trauma is not a mental health condition in itself, but experiencing trauma can result in a young person struggling with their mental health. A wide range of mental health conditions and symptoms can be linked to trauma, including anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), eating disorders and self-harming behaviours.
Depending on their experience, some young people can be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Someone experiencing PTSD will often have flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts that can appear at any time or ‘from nowhere’, and strong feelings or reactions in response to reminders of a particular event or experience. They may also avoid particular memories, thoughts and feelings related to the distressing experience, as well as people, places or activities that remind them of it.
Another diagnosis directly related to trauma is complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD). A young person who is diagnosed with this will be experiencing more severe symptoms and is likely to have gone through a childhood trauma that lasted a long time.
Useful helplines and websites
Offers support to anyone under 25 about anything that’s troubling them.
Email support available via their online contact form.
Free 1-2-1 webchat service available.
Free short-term counselling service available.
4pm - 11pm, seven days a week
If you’re under 19 you can confidentially call, chat online or email about any problem big or small.
Can provide a BSL interpreter if you are deaf or hearing-impaired.
Hosts online message boards where you can share your experiences, have fun and get support from other young people in similar situations.
9am - midnight, 365 days a year
Text YM to 85258
Provides free, 24/7 text support for young people across the UK experiencing a mental health crisis.
All texts are answered by trained volunteers, with support from experienced clinical supervisors.
Texts are free from EE, O2, Vodafone, 3, Virgin Mobile, BT Mobile, GiffGaff, Tesco Mobile and Telecom Plus.
Texts can be anonymous, but if the volunteer believes you are at immediate risk of harm, they may share your details with people who can provide support.
Whatever you're going through, you can contact the Samaritans for support.
CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably)
Provides support to anyone in the UK who is feeling down and needs to talk or find information.
Free webchat service available.
Information about the helpline and how it works available here.
5pm - midnight, 365 days a year