Community Trauma: What to Watch for in Youth

Over the past weeks, our communities have experienced an unprecedented amount of loss to violence and disaster. It seems we’re not given an opportunity to begin the grieving process for one before news that another shooting has struck our schools, places of worship, centers for healing, or venues for social events.

The wildfires in California have been devastating. Lives lost and neighborhoods destroyed, all right on the heels of the Thousand Oaks shooting. Many families had to evacuate their homes while they struggled to grasp the realities of the unthinkable: the loss of their children and family members.

“Our sympathies” do not really convey the depths of our sentiment when addressing losses on such a large scale, but we send them nonetheless. Natural disaster and exposure to violence – even if only experienced through the lens of the media – are traumatic. No one needs a professional to tell us that: clearly, these recent events will have lasting impact. Especially on our children, because they lack the coping skills adults gain over time.

Since kids may not volunteer information about what and how they’re feeling  The National Child Traumatic Stress Network compiled a list of common reactions and tips for how to help children who are struggling to cope with this sort of devastation. We hope this list of signs and symptoms will help caregivers in the days and weeks to come as we grieve our losses.

Community Trauma: 10 Things to Watch for in Youth

  1. Kids will may feel a combination of scared, numb, sad, angry and empty. Little kids may become clingy, while older kids may act aloof because they’re ashamed of admitting fear and worry.
  2. Kids of all ages may have trouble attending school. They may struggle paying attention, concentrating on school work, or completing assignments on time.
  3. Physical symptoms not attributed to an illness or a medical condition may develop. Symptoms such as headaches, body aches, fast or shallow breathing, body aches, and stomach aches are common.
  4. The stress of the events may cause children to lose sleep. In school they may appear listless, groggy, and overtired.
  5. Kids who already display problem behaviors – outbursts, rule-breaking, aggression – may escalate those behaviors. Behaviors such as substance use, self-injury, or high risk sex, may increase.
  6. Typically social kids may become withdrawn and isolate. Kids who are already somewhat withdrawn may become more so. Both types of kids may retreat to games or social media to handle their stress.
  7. A startle response to everyday noises may develop. This is the body’s physical response to events or noises they perceive as dangerous, also known as the fight-or-flight response.
  8. Kids may seek out information about the event from news and social media in an effort to find explanations for or causes of the event.
  9. A belief that they are generally unsafe in their everyday life may develop.
  10. A sense of feeling guilty over survival may become apparent.

If any of these reactions become so severe that they interfere with day-to-day functioning, teachers and parents should enlist the assistance of a mental health professional. They can help kids process trauma in a way that minimizes long-term, negative effects.

If you would like to learn more about the impact of trauma be sure to read our parent guide on post-traumatic stress disorder.