Coping with Trauma

  • Trauma is a condition that results from events or experiences that are shocking, terrifying and overwhelming to an individual – these events can be experienced or witnessed. These experiences often leave a person temporarily helpless and powerless, and overwhelm a person’s ability to cope. One out of every four children has been exposed to a traumatic event that can affect learning and/or behavior. 

    Trauma can take many forms. Examples of traumatic events can include sexual abuse, domestic violence, medical events or mishaps, accidents, natural events (like tornados, hurricanes, or earthquakes), or manmade events (like war, terrorism, hate crimes, or violence). Whatever the situation, the results can be devastating to students as well as adults. Communication and collaboration are critical to helping our children when events like this occur.

    Grief and trauma are often related. Grief tends to mix with trauma when a loss is sudden and unexpected – a fatal heart attack, an accident, a murder – or it’s perceived as being outside the normal cycle of life, as in the death of a child. For example, someone who nurses a spouse through a long illness will grieve when the spouse is gone, but the person who witnesses the sudden death of a spouse in a car crash will likely be traumatized as well. A sudden loss can be even more difficult to deal with if you don’t have an outlet for mourning or a support network that you can access.

    While trauma always incorporates grief, the two states are very different in how you experience them and what they can do to you. Grief is a normal reaction to loss, with its symptoms diminishing on their own over time. On the other hand, trauma is a disabling reaction that can block the grieving process, disrupt your life, and leave you psychologically vulnerable. Grief involves missing someone and feeling sad. Trauma involves fear and feeling unsafe or insecure. The trauma must be addressed first for the person to be able to grieve normally. If your child is coping with a traumatic loss or a traumatic event, it is important to reach out for help. Talking to your child’s doctor is a good first step. You can always call your child’s school counselor, social worker, or school psychologist for guidance, too.

    The National Institute for Trauma and Loss presents a chart based on the work of researchers William Steel and Melvyn Raider, contrasting the experience and effects of grief and trauma.


    • Sadness is the dominant emotion. 
    • Grief feels real.
    • Talking about grief can help.
    • Pain is related to the loss.
    • Anger is nonviolent.
    • Guilt involves unfinished emotional business with the deceased.
    • Your self-image and confidence generally remain intact.
    • You dream about the person you lost.
    • Symptoms lessen naturally over time.


    • Terror is the dominant emotion.
    • Trauma feels unreal.
    • Talking about trauma is difficult or impossible.   
    • Pain involves not just loss but terror, helplessness, and fear.
    • Anger often involves violence towards yourself or others.
    • Guilt includes self-blame for what happened or thoughts that it should have been you who was harmed.
    • Your self-image and confidence are distorted and undermined.
    • You dream about yourself in danger.
    • Untreated, symptoms may get worse.

    Trauma that is not addressed can lead to many long-term risks, including:

    • Attachment problems                                                                                                                                        
    • Eating disorders
    • Depression
    • Suicidal behavior
    • Anxiety
    • Alcoholism or drug abuse
    • Violent behavior
    • Mood disorders
    • Post traumatic stress disorder

    Children who are struggling with trauma are often misdiagnosed as having ADHD, depression, a conduct disorder (being unruly and disobedient to adults), oppositional defiant disorder, anxiety, or a phobia.

    Helping children cope with trauma  

    The most important thing we can do as adults to help a child who is dealing with trauma is to help them find a therapist who is trained in trauma-related practices. Here are some other ways to help:

    • Listen to your child and encourage them to talk, but don’t force them to share – be supportive and sympathetic, but try not to overreact and don’t try to make everything seem OK.
    • Ask what they know about the event and what their perceptions of it are.
    • Reassure your child that their feelings are normal – don’t try to change their feelings.
    • Allow your child to express their feelings and share yours with them when appropriate – encourage your child to paint, draw or write about what happened.
    • Reassure your child that they are safe and loved.
    • Review family safety procedures.
    • Be honest and provide accurate facts about the event.
    • Keep all promises you make to your child during the crisis – don’t make promises you can’t keep.
    • Address issues of death concretely and factually, based on your child’s developmental and maturity level – always be truthful and avoid putting positive spins on things.
    • Older children – teenagers – are drawn to friends and social support groups during times of tragedy. Allow time for them to connect with friends, when appropriate. Conversely, some teens may need privacy at times.
    • Try not to transfer your own feelings to your child. Respond to safety issues with calm and reassurance. Sometimes a parent’s own despair makes it harder for their child to heal.
    • Help your child get back to a “normal” routine as soon as possible.
    • Spend extra time with your child each day doing something fun or relaxing.
    • Be prepared to accept signs of aggression and anger, especially in the early phases after a traumatic event.
    • Make sure all the caregivers of a child are aware of the impact of the event on the child (teachers, babysitters, friends, neighbors, etc).
    •  Be prepared for children to exhibit regressive behaviors (becoming more childish and immature).
    • Assure your child that what happened is not their fault.
    • Talk about the future in hopeful terms. This can help your child rebuild trust and faith in the world.
    • Remember to take care of yourself!                                                                                                                       

    *Adapted from the TIG Consortium