Common Reactions of Children to Trauma


chai4everBy Moshe Borowski LMSW, ACSW, Director of Crisis Intervention at Chai4ever

When tragedy strikes, children may suddenly find themselves thrust into a world that can be scary and uncertain. The fear and confusion that results can be almost palpable and the impact of trauma is so powerful and pervasive that it can affect children in many ways, including the physical, emotional, spiritual, behavioral and cognitive aspects of their daily lives.

As children are the most vulnerable members of our community, it is crucial to monitor how they react to the news they have heard. First, there a few vital points to keep in mind:

1) Trauma can be likened to a stone thrown into a pond. The resulting ripples spread, hitting everything in their wake and affecting their surrounding environment.

Numerous factors may determine the impact the news will have, including:

  • Illnesses (current or prior) that the child, or those he/she knows, may have;
  • Recent losses and changes, such as death, divorce, breaking up with a friend, going away for the summer, moving residences, changing schools;
  • Age/developmental stage;
  • Prior coping skills;
  • Supports (parents, relatives, friends, neighbors, rabbis, teachers, mental health professionals).

2) Key points about the patterns of children’s reactions:

  • Roller coaster: reactions may come and go at any time with no discernable cycle or pattern. A child may have some initial reactions, start to feel better, become exceptionally relieved, and then experience incredible dismay upon experiencing reactions again.
  • Wax and wane: level of strength may get stronger and weaker.
  • Reactions may vary from day to day, or week to week: crying one day, loss of appetite the next, anger a few weeks down the line.
  • Children can feel as if they have lost their bearings. They may begin to feel different and alone, questioning their own ability to weather the whirlwind of thoughts and emotions.
  • Non-reactions: outside of immediate family and friends, not everyone has a strong reaction to a trauma that has happened so far away to people he/she doesn’t know. Not having the feeling that others are experiencing may in turn trigger feelings of guilt.
  • For some, reactions may occur at a later time.

3) Generally speaking, it is considered within “normal range” for a person to have strong reactions for up to 30 days. While the famous psychotherapist and author Viktor Frankl stressed that, “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior,” it remains absolutely vital to understand that if a child, or anyone else, is exhibiting signs of being potentially harmful to themselves or others, he/she should immediately go to the nearest hospital. Outside of such extreme situations, if you have serious concerns about your child’s reactions, or lack of reactions, it is advisable to consult with a mental health professional.

Some classic reactions that children and teens may have to trauma:


  • Headaches
  • Stomach aches or other gastro-intestinal disorders
  • Chest pains/breathing difficulties
  • Fatigue, exhaustion
  • Rapid heart rate/elevated blood pressure
  • Sudden bursts of energy
  • Senses becoming hyper-acute
  • Hives, rashes
  • Dizziness, fainting
  • Chills, nausea, weakness


  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Disbelief, confusion
  • Dazed, disorientation
  • Daydreaming, fantasizing
  • Nightmares
  • Sudden moments of clarity or insight
  • Obsessive thoughts (concerning personal life, home or school)
  • Excessive safety worries (for self, parents, siblings or others)


  • Pattern changes for sleeping/eating
  • Pattern changes for speaking
  • Isolation, withdrawal
  • Sudden outbursts (screaming, crying)
  • Declining grades at school
  • Shirking from physical contact
  • Pattern changes in talking (significant increase or decrease)
  • Regressive behaviors (clinginess, whining, thumb-sucking, soiling clothes, bedwetting, sleeping in parents’ room, leaving lights on at night)


  • Sadness or depression
  • Little/no affect (“flat affect”), shock, numbness
  • Guilt or regret
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling hopeless, lonely, lost, empty or abandoned
  • Anxiety
  • Apathy or resignation
  • Relief
  • Anger, irritability
  • Fear, anxiety, apprehension


  • Loss of meaning or purpose
  • Feeling lost, ignored, abandoned
  • Questioning of religious beliefs and practices (rituals, holidays)
  • Questioning or anger toward G-d, religious representatives (clergy, teachers, parents) or institutions (synagogue, school, home)
  • Gratitude to G-d
  • Sudden feeling of clarity, mission or purpose
  • Extreme focus on introspection, self-improvement or helping others
  • Sudden/increased focus on being spiritual or religious
  • Disappointment if they are not able to maintain this newfound level of spirituality
  • “Bargaining:” making “deals” with G-d, rabbis, parents for the injured to be healed, which may eventually trigger disappointment and confusion

Moshe Borowski LMSW, ACSW is the Director of Crisis Intervention at Chai4ever.

He may be reached at or by calling (732) 998-6964.

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  1. I want to thank Moshe Borowski for his very informative article. As an “out of town” mental health professional working with kids, the list provided is not only clinically prudent but more importantly extremely easy to pass on to teachers and other professionals when dealing with such tragic events.