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Traumatisation of children and adolescents

Childhood trauma is one of the oldest and most central themes in psychopathology. Otto Rank (1884-1939), one of the first psychoanalysts, even believed that being born was a child's first traumatic experience. The theory was met with much criticism at the time, but today, Rank’s point that the body ‘remembers’ violent sensations, is recognised as an important aspect of the crisis psychological reactions that follow a trauma.

Like adults, children can be exposed to random and tragic events such as car accidents, natural disasters, deaths or life-threatening illnesses. Childhood is a particularly vulnerable period; children’s defenselessness and dependence on adults can be abused and exploited. We warn our children not to talk to strangers because we fear paedophilia and kidnapping, but unfortunately, children are often traumatised behind the four walls of their home, by violent- or sexual abuse, neglect, or by witnessing violence between the parents.

Research on children and trauma

The National Centre of Psychotraumatology has conducted two extensive surveys of the presence of PTSD in Danish and Icelandic youth. The Danish study of a randomly selected group of eighth-grade students showed that as much as 87% of girls and 78% of boys had experienced at least one traumatic event in their lives. 9% currently had or had previously had post-traumatic stress. These numbers were even higher in the Icelandic group, where 16% of the interviewed were currently suffering from PTSD or had previously had post-traumatic stress. Among the Icelandic youth, 74% of girls and 79% of boys had experienced at least one traumatic experience in their lives.

Children's crisis reactions

The National Centre of Psychotraumatology is behind a research project that has provided new knowledge about children's crisis reactions. Until now, research on children has been sparse and the information available mainly deals with older children. The study consisted of 430 school children down to kindergarten age, who experienced the fireworks disaster in Seest, 3 November 2004.

Overall, the study shows that children’s reactions to disasters are quite strong and long-lasting and that girls and the youngest children are particularly vulnerable. The results showed that:

  • 37% of the children were still severely stressed 16 months after the disaster. These children met the criteria for chronic PTSD.
  • The girls in the study scored higher on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms than the boys.
  • The youngest children (0-2 grade – i.e. about 5-7 years of age) were the most stressed.
  • There was a significant connection between many PTSD symptoms and physical symptoms.
  • Frequent stomach- and headaches can thus be seen as signs of PTSD in children who have experienced to a traumatic event.

Parents find it difficult to assess the condition of their child

The researchers also examined the extent to which the parents were aware of how their children were feeling. The results were ambiguous; on the one hand, the parents had a hard time noticing problems in the girls and the youngest children, and on the other hand, many of the parents had noticed hyperactivity and emotional problems in their children. The study thus showed that parents have a hard time assessing the condition of their child.

Children spare their parents
Overall, the results suggest that children spare their parents by not telling them how bad they felt. The parents do not know how affected their children are and thus are not able to give them the support they need in order to get better.

13-18 years old

See some of the signs of traumatization in children in the age of 13-18 years old.


0-2 years old

See some of the signs of traumatization in children in the age of 0-2 years old.


3-6 years old.

See some of the signs of traumatization in children in the age of 3-6 years old.


7-12 years old

See some of signs of traumatization in children in the age of 7-12 years old.


Last Updated 22.03.2019