Focus on Pediatrics: Children usually react in age-appropriate ways

Teach parents signs and symptoms

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) based in Bethesda, MD, children react to a traumatic event in age appropriate ways. Therefore, it is important to teach parents what signs and symptoms to expect following a traumatic event based on the age of their child.

• Children ages 0-5

Typical reactions might include a fear of being separated from the parent, crying, whimpering, screaming, immobility and/or aimless motion, trembling, frightened facial expressions and excessive clinging.

Children may regress to behaviors exhibited at an earlier age such as bed-wetting, thumb sucking, and being afraid of the dark. According to the NIMH, children in this age category can be strongly affected by the parents’ reactions to the traumatic event.

• Children ages 6-11

Children in this age category may become extremely withdrawn, exhibit disruptive behavior, and/or lose their ability to pay attention. According to the NIMH, regressive behaviors, nightmares, sleep problems, irrational fears, irritability, refusal to attend school, outbursts of anger and fighting are common when children this age are traumatized.

Complaints about ailments that have no medical basis such as stomachaches also are common. Schoolwork can suffer, and the child may become depressed, anxious, and experience feelings of guilt and emotional numbing.

• Adolescents ages 12-17

In this age group, responses to trauma are similar to those experienced by an adult. They may include flashbacks, nightmares, emotional numbing, avoidance of any reminders of the event, depression, substance abuse, problems with peers, and antisocial behavior.

Other common signs of trauma according to the NIMH are withdrawal and isolation, physical complaints, suicidal thoughts, school avoidance, academic decline, sleep disturbances, and confusion. Adolescents may feel guilt over their inability to have prevented injury or loss of life, which interferes with their recovery. Fantasies of revenge also inhibit recovery.


For more information, contact:

National Institute of Mental Health, Information Resources and Inquiries Branch, 6001 Executive Blvd., Room 8184, MSC 9663, Bethesda, MD 20892-9663. Phone: (301) 443-4513. E-mail: Web site:

According to the NIMH, the more directly involved in the traumatic situation a child is, the more likely he or she will experience emotional stress.