Children and Trauma

By Dr. Asa Don Brown, Ph.D., C.C.C., D.N.C.C.M., F.A.A.E.T.S

children with masks during covid looking out window

The dire effects of COVID may linger long into the next decade. It really depends how much longer this egregious virus clutches its claws into the minds, the hearts, and the perceptions of our world. Moreover, the effects of this virus on the life of an innocent child may not be known for years to come. Psychologically, children are less likely to verbally communicate how they have been affected by such events.


Trauma has an unbelievable ability of affecting the lives of the youngest of children. Even vicarious experiences can have a profound effect upon the life of a child. We seldom consider the effects of trauma on the very young, but even the watching of a television program that portrays trauma and traumatic experiences may have a dire effect. The mind of a child is impressionable and amenable, being easily manipulated. Research has indicated that the brain of child is not stagnate, rather, it is quite fluid, easily influenced by his or her surroundings. Thus, it is why traumatic events can have a lasting impression upon the life of a child. It is especially true for younger children who may have a more difficult time distinguishing between real life and actual events.  


As a clinician, I was working in Alberta, Canada during the events of September 11th. The irony of all ironies is that I had a trip planned to New York City that fall related to my work. My trip was abruptly, and understandably cancelled, and rescheduled for January 4, 2002. 

On the day and weeks to follow September 11th, I found myself providing reassurance for children, youth, and some adults that the events that had occurred were not going to occur in our corner of the world. I had countless children fearful of their parents or families being tragically killed by some terrorist. It was a difficult time as a clinician to reassure such innocent children that their families would not be directly impacted by such egregious events. I recall one particular young child who was so fearful of such events occurring that they had developed a bedwetting issue at the age of 11. Naturally, the child felt embarrassment and shame for wetting the bed. The child not only had a bedwetting issue, but a genuine fear that the child’s parents may not return home. It was not an unusual case at that time. I was also called on by a school in the Edmonton, Alberta area to speak to elementary children on the effects of trauma. Let me make this clear, trauma can affect any life at any age. Trauma can have a profound effect upon the lives of the most innocent of children.  


The effects of trauma on an individual may vary depending upon a variety of factors. The risk factors of developing Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or some other psychological conditions are:  the age of an individual at the time of the traumatic experience, the intellectual quotient of the individual, the proximity to the event, a familial history of psychological or psychiatric disorders, a prolonged separation from primary caregivers, and other biopsychosocial factors. Research has clearly shown that being separated from a parental caregiver can exacerbate the risk of developing a traumatic condition.  

Research conducted by A. Ellis et. al. indicated that the repercussions of traumatic experiences can develop months following a motor vehicle accident. For children, these repercussions can have a profound effect developing over an extended period of time. The children had high levels of post-traumatic stress symptoms, particularly avoidance in over 50%. Travel anxiety was described in 39%, 23% were depressed and 14% highly anxious–features which were considered by parents to have appeared following the accident, often with increasing disturbance over time.

Children may especially feel vulnerable when there is no perceivable control. Moreover, if a parental caregiver is a victim of a traumatic event, the child has a greater propensity of developing a psychological issue. 

The good news is that there are ways of insulating or protecting a child from traumatic events.  While a child is insulated, it does not guarantee that a child will not develop a psychological condition, however, research has clearly shown that such protective factors will help to ward off many of the possible risk factors.  


As you would insulate your home to protect it from the varying elements, we must insulate our children from the varying elements that could negatively affect their precious lives. Trauma can have a profound impact upon any life, any age, any intellectual quotient, and at any time. It is critically important that you ask for help if you or your family has been involved in a traumatic event. Time is of the essence when dealing with the repercussions of a traumatic event. Do not delay receiving care for yourself or your family.  

The most vital thing that you can do is to reassure your child. Research has shown that children who receive a lot of positive cognitive stimulation, active communication, active listening, and parental nurturing have a thicker outer layer of their cortex, which has a significant role contributing to the process of thinking and memory. Furthermore, research has shown that a child who is reassured, and has an opportunity to communicate his/her angst, has a greater chance of recovery. Most importantly, it is how a parental caregiver responds to the traumatic event that will influence the response of the child. 

Dr.  Asa Don Brown is a prolific author, an engaging speaker, human rights advocate, and clinical psychologist. He serves as first responder in New York and he has held university faculty positions teaching incoming freshmen to those completing their graduate work.