What Makes an Event Traumatic for a Child?

Experiences before and after affect how severe the injury will be 

Dr. Steven Berkowitz

It's important to understand that it's not the nature of the event itself that makes something traumatic. It's really the subjective experience of the child that defines whether an event is traumatic or not.

Many of us have experiences that are very upsetting. We may be disturbed, we may be unable to sleep, we may not be able to eat, we may be irritable, but we integrate it, over time, and recover. So trauma is really best understood as a failure of recovery. It's a response to an event, it's not the event itself.

There are many factors that go into whether an event is traumatic for a child.

First, there are individual factors that relate to the child's own history, her previous experiences, as well as biological vulnerabilities that we don't understand yet.

Then there are the event factors. We certainly know that close proximity, both emotional and physical, to the event are more likely to make it traumatic. For instance, rape is known to be one of the most traumatic of events, as is sexual assault.

Finally, there are also factors that occur after the event, whether a child has support from people close to her, especially her family, or whether there are additional stressors that are ongoing, and that interfere with her ability to process and recover.

So it's a very complex situation, because while we tend to think of an event as being the cause of trauma, trauma is actually a process over time. Trauma is the Greek word for injury, and so it's an experience that causes an injury to one's functioning—cognitive functioning, physiological functioning and psychological functioning.

Steven J. Berkowitz, MD, is associate professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania.

See this related article for tips on talking to your children about traumatic experiences.

Updated: June 8, 2011

More on Trauma


Get our email? CMI newsletters bring helpful resources right to your inbox.




Leave a Comment 2
View All Comments (2)

Please SIGN IN or REGISTER to post a comment.

rfcostello · Nov 14 2012 Report

Thank you so much for being so clear about what trauma is. I am a fifty one year old man who was sexually abused by my parish priest/scout master and the asst. scoutmaster for several years. every time I hear or read about the sexual abuse of others I get upset. I feel deeply for the victim and find my self wanting to help in any way I can. These reports also effect me on such an emotion level that I do feel trauma. It is all I can think of for days. I know full well that it is not happening now, but the memories are debilitating. I have no faith or belief in a god. A huge distrust of authority. The list could go on but you get the idea. My family and some of my friend are of the opinion that I should just move on. They do not understand the complexities of living with this trauma. The anger, grief, loss, and the physical effects. Don't get me wrong years of therapy have help a great deal. Lawsuits have helped to regain my self preservation. However the pain on many levels remains. I wish that I had entered therapy long before I did, it would have saved me a lot of problems that I blamed myself for. I now know that the effects of trauma are life long. I have learned to live with them as opposed to living them. I have learned that living the best of life is sweet revenge over the hell that I went through. I also believe that my suffering has led to being the man that I am. I have been a fighter since the day I was born (1.5 lbs) Traumas have not defined me . · Sep 30 2011 Report

This makes me feel alot better about what happened to my son after he found out I would be moving away to get a home ready for him. Everyone, including his therapist, are placing the blame solely on my leaving and not on the lack of support he's receiving at home.

Please help us improve the Symptom Checker!

Click here to share your thoughts about using the tool.