Stress and Trauma in Children
by Naomi Drew, M.A.
author of Hope and Healing

Don’t think that just because your children aren’t talking about their fears they don’t have any. Even children who have been shielded from the news can’t help but pick up things on the playground or even passing a newsstand. Sometimes between children’s TV shows there are news flashes that sound terrifying: “Shopping mall bombed in Israel,” “Chances of another attack in the United States,” “Can we survive bioterrorism?” All of these ideas have seeped into the national consciousness, and our children are absorbing them. Listen to some of their words:

“Sometimes I’m scared,” confided 13 year-old Frank. “My dad was going to go to France. I didn’t want him to go on the plane. I was so relieved when he canceled the trip.”

Five year-old Hannah expressed feelings of fear also. “When you do a war, what if the other side wins? What would happen to us?”

Eight year old Ben said, “It’s not a very good time. There’s war in Afghanistan and there’s war in the world. I don’t like the bombings.”

Fifteen year -old Amy said: “I feel unsafe to know that people are dying all over the place. Its frightening to think about.”

Nine year-old Tess gets upset every time she sees reports of war on television.” It feels like it will never be peaceful again. I’m worried the world may come to an end.”

Young people of all ages are more vulnerable than ever to the effects of stress.
If you think your child might be suffering from reactions to stress or trauma of any kind, here are some signs to be aware of:

Ages 3 - 5
- physical complaints like stomach aches and headaches
- fearfulness and feelings of not being safe
- stranger or separation anxiety
- compulsively “playing out” the source of trauma; e.g. building towers with blocks and crashing them down.
- avoidance of situations that may or may not be related to the trauma
- sleep disturbances
- loss of acquired developmental skills (like dressing oneself)
- frequent crying

Ages 6 - 10
- physical complaints and concerns about their health
- anxiety and fearfulness
- compulsive re-enactment of the trauma through play or drawing
- “omen formation” - believing that warning signs predicted the trauma, and a tendency to be hyper-alert in order to recognize new warning signs.
- preoccupation with how the crisis could have been solved or averted
- sleep problems

Pre-adolescence and Adolescence
- nightmares and flashbacks, difficulty sleeping, and feeling detached or estranged
- impulsive and aggressive behaviors.
- over-preoccupation with other concerns unrelated to the trauma
- rebelliousness and anti-social behaviors
- risk-taking behaviors

Teens can normally be rebellious, even a little aggressive, but if this becomes excessive, it’s time to seek professional intervention. If your teen starts engaging in promiscuous behavior, starts dabbling in drugs, or using alcohol, all these are danger signals. Also, any extreme changes in behavior -- eating, sleeping , recreation, homework, or activities with friends .

There are lots of things you can do in your own home to help your child calm, cope, and heal. Now let’s take a look at what they are.

Helping Children Cope With Stress

Here’s a general break-down of age-related strategies for helping children cope.

Ages 3 - 5
- Children of this age need plenty of reassurance that they are safe, but make sure it’s authentic. Avoid statements like, “We will never have another terrorist attack again,” but you can say, “I am here for you and I’ll always protect you in every way I can. And when you’re at school (or day-care) your teachers are keeping you safe.” Taking your children to visit the local police and fire department so they can talk directly with the people who work there can be very reassuring too.

For young children, Dr. Perri Klass, pediatrican and author of Love and Modern Medicine says, “It’s alright to make the promise you can’t keep for sure: `I’ll be here to take care of you tomorrow and every day’.” She says, “Even 5 year-olds understand that everyone dies sometime and will be comforted if you simply say, `I have every intention of being here until you’re old. I’m going to be very careful about what I do’.” (Parenting , Dec./Jan. 2002)

- Let your children know it’s okay to feel afraid or sad if that’s how they are feeling. Soothe them during these times rather than trying to talk them out of their feelings. Validating how your child feels is essential. Initiate discussion, but don’t push. Open the door gently and encourage your child without being intrusive.

Try sitting down on the edge of your child’s bed at night before she goes to sleep. Cuddle up together and then say something like, “I’m just wondering how you’ve been feeling about all the stuff that’s been going on in the world lately.” Or, “Im just checking in. Anything you’d like to talk about?” Let your child take the lead from there.

- Encourage play that allows your child to act out some of the things he’s afraid of. Playing fireman or police officer is a healthy way to do this. This is how young children try to make sense of what we’ve lived through. As long as this type of play doesn’t become obsessive, it’s a good outlet.

- Like we talked about earlier, encouraging your child to draw or paint whatever is on his mind is very healing. You’ll find lots of way to help her do this later in the chapter.

- Listen and reflect back whatever your child has to say. Sometimes this can be hard, because, as parents, we often want to fix the problem. But by listening and empathizing we allow our child a safe space to reveal what he really feels. When 5 year-old Tad told his mom he was afraid to fly, she encouraged him to talk about it. Here’s their conversation:

Tad: I don’t want to go to Disney World for vacation.
Mom: Why not?
Tad: I’m afraid bad people will come on the plane and hurt us.
Mom: So you’re afraid that we’ll get hurt if we fly.
Tad: Look what happened to all those people who were on the planes the hijackers took!
Mom: You’re afraid hijackers might come on our plane?
Tad: Yes. I don’t want us to die.

By just plain listening Mom allowed Tad to get his fears out on the table. Then she was able to give reassurances like, “I know how scary it is to fly right now. I was a little nervous too. But then I thought about all the planes that fly safely every day, and all the people traveling on them. In fact our neighbor Tom flies several times a month for his job, and he’s gotten home safely every time. I know the airlines are taking extra measures keep all their passengers safe.”

Mom didn’t try to talk Tad out of his feelings. Instead, she listened, reflected back, and offered assurances that were authentic. After that, Tad wasn’t as nervous about their trip.

Ages 6 - 10
- Children this age may avoid discussing painful feelings. Be open and encourage them to open up to you. Dr. Janine S. Shelby of UCLA Medical Center developed this wonderful activity to help children express feelings-- make a personalized book with your child’s name on the cover. On each of four pages write the following:
~ Page 1 -This is Sara. Something happened that was very scary.
(Sara draws her picture on this page.)
~ Page 2 - Sara doesn’t want to talk about it. Here’s what would happen if she did. (Here the child writes or draws a related picture.)
~ Page 3 - If Sara starts talking about how she feels, this could happen too.
_ She would feel worse.
_ Mom and Dad wouldn’t like hearing how she’s really feeling.
_ Something else might happen.
(Help your child check off the appropriate choice and write about it further.)
~ Page 4 - If Sara decides to talk about what’s on her mind, I wonder how she might end up feeling?
(Here draw a happy face and a sad face. Have your child circle one. Then she can explain why she feels the way she does.)
(Adapted from the article “Brief Therapy with Traumatized Children” by Janine S. Shelby)

Other things that help children of this age are:
- Deep breathing and visualization
- Positive self-statements like, “I am safe and well and so is my family.”
- Altruism, reaching out to help others. Guidance counselor Jane Mangino says: “After kids have expressed their feelings, the thing that helps them the most is taking action.” When children help others it removes their own feelings of helplessness.

I have used each of these for years with children of all ages and they are extremely effective. Take the time to teach your child these techniques and you will be giving them a life-long tool for calming and de-stressing. The younger you start the better. You can actually start doing this as part of a bedtime ritual with children as young as four.

Pre-adolescents and Adolescents
- Discussing fears openly with an empathetic listener
- Deep breathing
- Visualization and relaxation techniques
- Positive self-statements like, “I am safe and well.”
- Altruism, reaching out to help others. This is particularly helpful for kids of this age. Allowing them to translate fears into positive action gives them a healthy vehicle for healing. There’s a wonderful website you can go to for ideas on how your teen can help. It’s called TeenHoopla. Their website is:
Here your teen can access a wide range of helping activities from homelessness to saving the rainforest. If you child expresses feelings of hopelessness about the world, have him look here. It will show him that people really can make a difference, especially people his age.

Sometimes just being there with your teen in a safe and loving setting, is enough to help him open up. Or by gently asking questions about other parts of his life and listening without judgment. Our intent listening is the best way to get our teens to talk more. When we show authentic interest, and validate what they say, they usually end up sharing more.

Physical affection also opens channels to communication. Many kids in their teens still like to be cuddled when they’re alone with us. The kind of closeness that cuddling brings out can help a teen feel safe to open up.

For kids of all ages, know that your loving presence is the most soothing thing of all. Make more time to listen. It will be the best investment of time you’ve ever made.

Naomi Drew is recognized around the world as an expert on conflict resolution and peacemaking in schools and homes. Hailed as visionary, her work has enabled educators, parents, and people of all ages to live together more cooperatively.

Her work has been recognized by educational leaders throughout the country. People of all ages have attested to durable changes in their relationships after applying the principles Drew outlines. Her work has been featured in magazines, newspapers, radio, and TV and she currently serves as a parenting expert for “Classroom Close-ups,” a public television show.

She is the author of four books, serves as a consultant to school districts, leads seminars, and runs parenting courses. Her latest book is Hope and Healing: Peaceful Parenting in an Uncertain World. Visit for more information on Naomi Drew and her work.


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