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Children of Trauma React Differently

For other children, those who have undergone some sort of trauma in their lives, the transition is a nightmare not only for them but also for their caregivers and parents. Trauma for these children wasn't a single-incident trauma; they had experienced multiple traumas that had been ongoing their entire lives. They come from families of intergenerational abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction, neglect, physical and sexual abuse, frequent moves, absent fathers, mothers who were depressed or had to work two or three jobs, poverty, and emotionally-absent caregivers. Some children eat only when they are in school. On weekends and in the summer they may get to eat once a day.

This was the population of children I worked with in a small east Texas rural community in a drop- out prevention program. Beginning with pre-K and ending in high school, the children I worked with taught me what I knew, what I didn't, and what I needed to learn.

I was surprised at the intense behavioral issues of the children who were referred to me in pre-K to fifth grade. For those of us who love to learn and read, it is difficult at first to understand children who refuse to read or do their work. Compounding that are those children who are aggressive, defiant and hostile to teachers. "I would have never thought of doing any of that when I was growing up," is what I said to myself and what you're probably thinking right now.

As I got to know these children, heard their stories and listened to their parents, I learned it wasn't that parents didn't love their children. They had been traumatized as well and did not know how to give their children what they never got. This kept them from being able to meet basic attachment and emotional needs. If that foundation has not been met minimally, a child has difficulties with social and emotional issues in groups, which shuts down their ability to learn.

Over time, I came to learn more about what these children have been going through for years at home. It's difficult to view life from their perspective and relate to the number of stressors they experience every day at home and at school, yet that is exactly what we must do to help them succeed.

Trauma Reactive Behaviors in School-Age Children

The following is a list of trauma reactive behaviors you may observe in early school-age children:


  1. Regressive behaviors: clinging, crying, baby talk
  2. Competitive and jealousy with younger siblings or peers
  3. Hyperactive or always on guard; can't sit still
  4. Anxiously talking
  5. A child who has been compliant may become irritable, aggressive or oppositional
  6. Uncharacteristic fears of people, place, objects
  7. Drops in school performance
  8. Staying off task, withdrawn, shut down
  9. Day dreaming, Spacey eyes, Pupils dilated
  10. Sexual acting out behaviors with siblings, peers, or in play
  11. Difficulty concentrating or paying attention
  12. Appearing confused
  13. Uncoordinated and clumsy
  14. Acting emotionally younger than their age.


Children who have undergone trauma feel like no one understands them, that they are not loved and that they are failures. Imagine day in and day out going somewhere that only reflects how much you have failed, all that you do wrong, and the vast difference between you and your peers. You don't fit in.

That is what these children feel. How could they not?

Deborah Chelette-Wilson, is an author, speaker, master relationship coach and counselor. For over thirty years she has worked 'in the trenches' with children and families who have experienced stress, trauma, attachment and relationship problems. When people use her approach their relationships improve.

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