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Woman embracing a childParents and caregivers often find it challenging to navigate the aftermath of childhood trauma. It is paramount to recognize the signs of trauma and traumatic stress, as well as providing a nurturing environment for healing and safety. This article aims to guide you through understanding the impact of childhood trauma, and to provide you with effective strategies for supporting a child who has experienced trauma. This blog post is the first in a new series of posts centered on childhood trauma, drawing from decades of peer-reviewed research and the expertise of leading child psychologists to help parents and caregiver navigate difficult situations with their children.

Understanding the Signs of Trauma in Children

Trauma in children can manifest through a wide array of signs, reflecting the profound impact on their emotional and psychological well-being. Behavioral symptoms may appear through increased aggression, withdrawal from social interactions, or regression to earlier developmental stages (e.g., bed wetting, “baby talk”). Emotional indicators might include persistent sadness, anxiety, or fears that seem disproportionate to the situation. It’s also common for children to experience physical symptoms like headaches or stomachaches without a clear medical cause. Children may develop symptoms of traumatic stress (e.g., flashbacks, intrusive memories, avoidance of trauma reminders, upsetting thoughts and feelings, hyperarousal) following exposure to childhood trauma (American Psychiatric Association, 2013)1.

The Role of Routine, Safety, and Positive Reinforcement in Healing

  1. Establishing a Safe Environment

Safety is the cornerstone to healing from childhood trauma. Children need to feel secure, both physically and emotionally, in their environment and with the people around them. Transparent and developmentally appropriate communication helps reinforce a child’s sense of security and provides a space to express their feelings without fear of judgment or punishment.

  1. The Power of Routine

Routines offer a sense of stability and predictability in a child’s life. Routines help regulate the brain’s stress response systems affected by trauma (Perry & Szalavitz, 2017)2. Parents and caregivers can create a predictable home environment through routines, schedules, and consistent parenting approaches. Regular schedules for meals, sleep/wake times, and activities can help restore a sense of normalcy.

  1. Positive Reinforcement

The attention of parents and caregivers is an incredibly powerful reinforcer of behavior. Positive reinforcement is an essential tool in encouraging desired behaviors, extinguishing undesired behaviors, and bolstering a child’s self-esteem. Positive reinforcement can be provided through simple verbal praise or non-verbal acknowledgements (e.g., hug, high five). Noticing and praising adaptive behavior helps children build a positive self-image, fosters strength and resilience, and has even been linked to improved long-term well-being of children (Seligman, 2011)3.

Strategies for Parents and Caregivers

  • Read and Learn: Reading and seeking support from others are crucial to understanding the effects of trauma. Familiarize yourself with warning signs, parenting strategies, and the basic principles of trauma-informed care. Familiarizing yourself with childhood trauma and traumatic stress will help empower you to provide sensitive and appropriate support.
  • Be Present and Listen: Engage in validation, reflective listening, and empathic support. Avoid jumping to solutions or advice. Encourage your child to express their thoughts and emotions and reinforce that their feelings make sense and are important.
  • Engage in Therapeutic Activities Together: Expressive arts activities such as music, crafts, or play therapy can provide a non-verbal outlet for children to express their emotions and experiences. Some children may reenact parts of their trauma through play (American Psychiatric Association, 2013)1. If you notice your child reenacting their trauma through play or expressive arts, consider consulting with a mental health professional to ensure the activities are done in a therapeutic manner.
  • Seek Professional Support: Consider enlisting the help of a child psychologist specializing in trauma-informed psychotherapy. Consider researching evidence-based therapies tailored to your child’s needs, such as Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) (Cohen, Mannarino, & Deblinger, 2006)4.


By recognizing the signs of trauma, establishing safety and routine, and using basic behavioral strategies such as positive reinforcement, parents and caregivers can create a nurturing environment for children who have experienced trauma. Remember, you’re not alone on this journey; professionals and resources are available to guide and support you and your child toward healing. Children are resilient and can overcome the impacts of trauma given the right support and environment.


  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
  2. Perry, B.D., & Szalavitz, M. (2017). The boy who was raised as a dog: And other stories from a child psychiatrist’s notebook–what traumatized children can teach us about loss, love, and healing. Basic Books.
  3. Seligman, M.E.P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Free Press.
  4. Cohen, J.A., Mannarino, A.P., & Deblinger, E. (2006). Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy for children and parents. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 11(3), 174-189.

Written by Amanda Howard, Ph.D.