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Shock Trauma In Children

How can I tell if my child has been traumatized?

By Peter Levine, Ph.D.

Any unusual behavior that begins shortly after a severely frightening episode or medical procedure, particularly with anesthesia, may indicate that your child is traumatized. [Keep in mind that what may seem trivial to an adult can be traumatizing for a child (e.g., falling off of a bicycle).]

Compulsive, repetitive mannerisms - such as repeatedly smashing a toy car into a doll - are an almost sure sign of an unresolved reaction to a traumatic (overwhelming) event. (The activity itself may or may not be a literal replay of the overwhelming event.) Other signs of traumatic stress include:

  • Persistent, controlling behaviors
  • Regression to earlier behavior patterns, such as thumb-sucking
  • Tantrums, uncontrollable rage attacks
  • Hyperactivity
  • A tendency to startle easily
  • Recurring night terrors or nightmares, thrashing while asleep, bed-wetting
  • Inability to concentrate in school, forgetfulness
  • Excessive belligerence or shyness, withdrawal or fearfulness
  • Extreme need to cling
  • Stomachaches, headaches, or other ailments of unknown origin

To find out whether an uncustomary behavior is indeed a traumatic reaction, try mentioning the frightening episode and see how your child responds. A traumatized child may not want to be reminded of the predisposing event or, conversely, once reminded, will become excited or fearful and unable to stop talking about it.

Reminders are revealing retrospectively as well. Children who have "outgrown" usual behavior patterns have not necessarily discharged the energy that gave rise to them. The reason traumatic reactions can hide for years is that the maturing nervous system is able to control the excess energy. By reminding your child of a frightening incident that precipitated altered behaviors in years past, you may well stir up signs of traumatic residue.

NOTE: for a more detailed discussion of trauma, see Peter Levine's book Waking the Tiger (readily available in bookstores). For more information on Somatic Experiencing and Childhood Trauma, read an article written by Peter Levine here.

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