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Children's Resilience in the Face of Trauma

— NYU Child Study Center
Updated on Jul 9, 2010

Introduction

Stressful events are common occurrences in the lives of our children. Traumatic stress, however, occurs following events which are unexpected and physically threatening to either children or their loved ones. Traumatic stress can occur as a result of exposure to a single event such as a natural disaster, a violent crime, the Challenger Space Shuttle Explosion, the Oklahoma City Bombing, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, exposure to a violent death (homicide or suicide). Traumatic stress can also occur as a result of exposure to ongoing events such as acts of war, community or domestic violence, and child abuse or neglect. In the presence of stressful events, the developmental challenge for children is to learn to cope, continue to adapt to changes and to grow into competent adults. Children who are able to succeed in the face of adversity have been described as resilient. This article will discuss what we have learned from resilient children about the capacity of human adaptation and will identify protective processes that help children deal successfully with traumatic stress and adversity. We will describe the personal haracteristics of resilient children, the types of families that foster resilience, and how communities can promote resilience and support every child’s recovery from trauma.

What are stressors and traumatic events?

A stressor is an event or experience that can be expected to cause stress in many children with the potential for disrupting normal functioning.1  A traumatic event is expected to overwhelm a child’s coping resources. Children (or adults) are not expected to sustain high levels of psychological wellbeing in the immediate aftermath of a disaster or in situations of severe threat.2 However, as the acute phase of distress passes, many children return to normal levels of functioning and proceed in their development in a healthy fashion.

Risk factors

Difficulty in a child’s ability to successfully deal with a trauma is likely to be influenced by the presence of the following risk factors:

  • Directly witnessing the event or
  • having a family member who was
  • exposed to the event
  • Surviving the death of a parent or another significant person
  • Experiencing mental health or learning problems before the event
  • Experiencing a previous traumatic event
  • Lacking a strong support network
  • Having a parent whose levels of stress and fear are on the rise3

The presence of at least one of these risk factors increases the chances that a child exposed to traumatic stress will face a more difficult road to recovery.4

Problems in coping after a traumatic event

The terrorist attacks that took place on September 11th left an indelible mark on all of our lives and elicited various reactions of sadness, anger, fear, confusion and grief. The largest study to date assessing children’s reactions following a traumatic event was completed six months after 9/11 among over 8,000 New York City public school children. The study, commissioned by the NYC Board of Education reported that a significant number of 4th -12th graders displayed a variety of symptoms and disorders including agoraphobia (fear of going out or taking public transportation), separation anxiety disorder (fear of separation from parents), posttraumatic stress disorder, conduct problems and depression.

After the Challenger space shuttle catastrophe in January of 1986, Lenore Terr et al reported that children reacted with a plethora of symptoms. The comments listed below describe some of the symptoms of posttraumatic stress such as jumpiness, flashbacks and nightmares. But perhaps most pervasive may be children’s changes in their beliefs about the future, about the world as safe and themselves and their parents as competent to respond effectively to the trauma, as well as to other dangers. Even every day risks such as having ambitions for
the future were affected.

  • “Before the Challenger blew up, I thought everything was perfect. Now I realize things go wrong.” - Girl, age 15, Concord, 1986
  • “I had a dream the other night of a fire in my barn. One horse of mine and eight other horses were killed.”
    – Girl, age 15, Concord, New Hampshire, 1986
  • “I had wanted to be a space shuttle person but I gave it up.” – Girl, age 9, Porterville, CA, 1987
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