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Trauma and Understanding Behaviour

Every child and young person placed in care is unique, and they come from a wide range of cultures, backgrounds and family types. Most have experienced trauma as a result of abuse, family violence or neglect.

The experience of trauma can make children feel helpless, overwhelmed and unable to cope. They can believe that the world is unsafe, that adults cannot be trusted and that good things don’t happen to them. They may have developed survival strategies such as staying awake, hoarding food, or looking for food at night. Some people might see these behaviours as being ‘naughty’ or disruptive but, in reality, they may have helped a child to keep safe and to survive.

A child’s stressful, and sometimes traumatic, experiences can actually affect how their brain develops. This influence on how the brain forms can then impact on their physical, mental and spiritual health; their learning, development and behaviour; the ways they cope with stress and interact with others; and how they show and control their emotions – from infancy into adulthood. Even when they are safe, children can feel stressed, in danger and afraid that traumatic events might happen again. This means that the experiences that a baby, child or young person has had before coming into care have most likely had a big impact on all areas of their learning, development and wellbeing.

In general, children may react to trauma in the following ways:

Children aged 5 years and younger: might constantly cry, scream, tremble or whimper and be overly clingy and hard to soothe or comfort. They may appear numb or ‘frozen’ and have little interest in toys or playing. They may become sickly and their behaviour may regress (go backwards) so they lose language, eating and physical skills. They may be sensitive to particular sounds, smells and things that remind them of traumatic experiences.

Children 6 to 11 years old: may be very withdrawn and have sleep problems, nightmares, irrational fears and complain of unexplained health problems such as stomach aches. They might fight with other children, be irritable, have angry outbursts and refuse to go to school or do homework. They may return to behaviours shown at earlier ages (e.g. bedwetting or thumb-sucking) and feel depressed, anxious, guilty or emotionally ‘flat’ or numb.

Adolescents aged 12-17 years: can have flashbacks, nightmares, suicidal thoughts, sleep problems; eating disorders; physical complaints and become emotionally numb. They may become withdrawn and isolated; depressed; skip school; and engage in risky or violent behaviour and alcohol or drug abuse. They may have low self-esteem, feelings of blame and guilt and try to avoid being reminded of their traumatic experiences.

Understanding how trauma might be affecting the development, thoughts and feelings of an infant, child or young person in care can help you to understand and respond to their behaviour and needs in a supportive way. The page Trauma and how to help on this website has more ideas on what you can do to support babies, children and young people in your care.

The following sheets on the Kids Matter website have more information on how trauma affects babies and young children.

The tip sheet Dealing with a Crisis on the NT Families website has suggestions on how to support children who are feeling stressed and anxious.