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Signs of Stress and Trauma in Children

Looking Through a Trauma Informed Lens Part 2

In Part 1: Understanding Stress and Trauma we learned that stress and trauma can significantly impact children’s health, development and overall wellbeing. Trauma can influence how children interact with others and their environment. When a child experiences stress or trauma, the survival brain may be activated and take control of how the child responds. 

The problem arises when the brain is in a constant state of survival. When the survival brain is activated, the thinking brain shuts off.  During this time, the emotional brain takes cues from the survival part of the brain and goes into “danger mode”, expressing large emotional responses such as a fight, flight, or freeze. 

Long-lasting or recurring stressful experiences may prevent a child from regulating their emotions appropriately and they may fall behind in their learning and development.  What was once easy for a child to do, can become overwhelming as they try to manage their stress and learn at the same time.  Support from caring and responsive adults who can offer strategies to help a child move out of survival and emotion to thinking is important.

Common signs of stress and trauma in children may include the following:

  • Presenting as less mature than peers of the same age
  • Difficulty with transitioning to other activities
  • Difficulty regulating emotions, e.g., tantrums, outbursts, irritability, or crying easily
  • Difficulty following instructions or routines that were previously learned
  • Regression in skills previously learned, such as toileting
  • More hands-on with peers during play
  • Overly physical reactions to conflict, difficulty with problem solving
  • Easily startled
  • Difficulty focusing on tasks
  • Disruption in sleep patterns
  • Flight risk, running away or hiding
  • Loss of interest in toys and activities previously enjoyed
  • Hypervigilance or constantly on “high alert”
  • Clinging or looking for extra attention from familiar adults
  • Overly physical play, over-activity or difficulty with physical self-regulation

When a child is experiencing stress and trauma, these common signs of stress may appear as if the child is ‘acting out’.  This is because the survival brain is responding to a threat by any means necessary. The emotional brain may respond through large scale emotions.  This behavioural response is a sign or symptom of the problem, not the problem itself.

Using a “trauma-informed lens” allows adults to see that the child is stressed and the survival part of the brain is overloaded. It is important for adults to remember that children are not acting out on purpose, but in fact, they are communicating, “I’m not feeling safe and this is all I know to do to get back to safety!” The adult’s role is to support the child to move out of survival mode to thinking again. 

When using a trauma-informed lens, be a detective.

When responding to children’s behaviour through a trauma informed lens, adults act as a detectives by gathering information through observation, documentation and reflection to find ways to best help the child. This detective work is most effective when all adults in the child’s life contribute to these discussions and observations.

Start by tracking events and look for triggers.

  • Date/Time – Does it always happen on the same day of the week or at the same time of day? 
  • People involved – Is there a person the child has greater difficulty with or is calmer around?
  • What happened right before behaviour?  – Track what happened, where, with who, how and when.  Write down what was said specifically. 
  • Who? Is there a particular staff or peer that is part of the dynamic when behaviour occurs? Is there something about a person that activates behaviour?  Tone of voice? Body language? History of relationship?
  • What? What is the behaviour over? An object? An injustice? A request or opportunity that the child is wanting? E.g., A peer was playing with a toy which a child wanted, resulting in a behaviour. Was there a specific expectation given?
  • Where? E.g., Is it always outside? Always in the hallway? In the class? In circle/group activity?
  • How? How did the child express behaviour? What did it look like?Does the child run away? Fight? Refuse or protest? Shutdown and not respond?
  • When? Does the behaviour happen when it’s time to tidy up for lunch? Does it happen around rest/quiet time? Always in the morning or in the afternoon? 
  • Behaviour – What was the behaviour or action from the child?
  • Conclusion/outcome – What actions did staff take to intervene?  What was said specifically? What were the consequences, expectations, follow through? What support was given to the child?
  • Focus on skills -What skills were missing that could have made that situation successful?

By being a trauma-informed detective you can learn to notice the patterns of the child and gain valuable information that will help guide you on what to do next.  Recognizing triggers will help adult’s develop a plan to support the child more effectively.  If there is an underlying skill that the child needs to develop, adults can identify and help the child learn the skills.


It is important to recognize the signs of stress and trauma and how the survival brain and emotional brain express themselves when triggered and overwhelmed.  Adults can support children when this occurs, by acting as detectives and tracking patterns that help to identify the underlying cause of the child’s signs or symptoms.

Written by Amanda Boyd, BA, CYC, CTP; Behaviour Consultant, Lumenus Community Services, Every Child Belongs


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