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Children and Trauma: what to expect and what to do

by Aletha Solter, Ph.D.

(French version)

frightened girl

Click here for a two-page printable version for free distribution to parents.


Aletha Solter, PhD, is an internationally recognized expert on attachment and trauma. She wrote this article to help families in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in the U.S. on September 11, 2001.

The advice would be the same for any major trauma. Even if your family has not been directly affected by trauma, simply hearing about frightening events or seeing them on TV can be sufficient to traumatize children.


1. What to expect.

orange ball Increase in separation anxiety, clinging, refusal to go to school or daycare, resistance to being alone in a room, especially at night.

orange ball Increased crying and temper tantrums, often triggered by insignificant incidents.

orange ball Increased fears and nightmares.

orange ball Increased startle response, hyper-alertness, and hyperactivity.

orange ball Regression in toileting, feeding, etc. Wanting to be treated like a baby.

orange ball Spontaneous play with toys and themes relating to the trauma.

2. What to do.

orange ball Let your child stay close to you. Don't force him to play or sleep alone.

orange ball If there has been a death in the family, let your child participate fully in the memorial service and grieving process, to the extent that she wishes.

orange ball Don't force your child to act more grown up than he feels. It's okay to treat him like a baby if that is what he wants. This will give him strength to face the trauma and heal from it.

orange ball Allow crying and temper tantrums. Try to accept these outbursts of intense emotions without punishing or distracting your child. These are natural stress-release mechanisms that help children heal from trauma.

orange ball Encourage play and laughter about themes related to the trauma. Provide appropriate props (toy fire engine, ambulance, doctor kit, airplane, etc.). Join in the play if your child wishes, but let her take the lead. Play and laughter help children master overwhelming experiences and release anxiety.

orange ball Give information in an age-appropriate manner. Answer your child's questions simply and truthfully, but shield him from distressing details. Like adults, children strive to understand why bad things happen. Explain this to the best of your ability, and make sure your child does not think that it was his fault.

orange ball Offer reassurance. Explain what precautions are being taken to avoid another similar trauma from occurring.

orange ball Try to maintain your child's daily routines and family traditions.

orange ball Find help and support for yourself.

3. When to seek professional help.

orange ball If your child purposely injures himself or talks about wanting to die.

orange ball If your child becomes destructive or violent.

orange ball If your child becomes withdrawn or unresponsive.

orange ball If your child has physical symptoms or loss of appetite.

orange ball If your child's fears, nightmares, hyper-alertness, increased separation anxiety, regression, or other symptoms last more than a month.

orange ball If your child cannot function normally for any other reason at home or at school.

Aletha Solter, PhD, is a developmental psychologist, international speaker, consultant, and founder of the Aware Parenting Institute ( Her books have been translated into many languages, and she is recognized internationally as an expert on attachment, trauma, and non-punitive discipline. The titles of her books are The Aware Baby, Cooperative and Connected (a revised edition of Helping Young Children Flourish), Tears and Tantrums, Raising Drug-Free Kids, and Attachment Play.

Aware Parenting is a philosophy of child-rearing that has the potential to change the world. Based on cutting-edge research and insights in child development, Aware Parenting questions most traditional assumptions about raising children, and proposes a new approach that can profoundly shift a parent's relationship with his or her child. Parents who follow this approach raise children who are bright, compassionate, competent, nonviolent, and drug free.

For more information about helping children heal from trauma, see Aletha Solter's books, Cooperative and Connected, Tears and Tantrums and Attachment Play

Cooperative and Connected Tears and Tantrums Attachment Play

This page was last updated on May 17, 2018. Copyright © 2001 to 2018 by Aletha Solter. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical (including copying to other web sites, and including translations), without written permission from Aletha Solter, with the exception of printing copies for personal use and for free distribution to parents.

Warning/Disclaimer: The information in this article is not intended to be used as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. When children display emotional, behavioral, or medical problems of any kind, parents are strongly advised to seek professional advice and treatment. Aletha Solter, The Aware Parenting Institute, and Shining Star Press shall have neither liability nor responsibility to any person or entity with respect to any damage caused, or alleged to be caused, directly or indirectly by the information contained in this article.