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Trauma is an emotional response to an event that is deeply frightening or distressing and can affect babies, infants and young children in ways they might not be able to communicate. Find out more.

What is trauma?

Trauma is an emotional response to an event that is deeply frightening or distressing. It happens when a person feels so overwhelmed by difficult emotions - such as fear or anxiety, that their mind can’t make sense of it. These emotions stay with the person and can influence the way they feel in the future. For example, a loud noise might remind someone of a previous frightening experience such as a car crash, causing them to experience it as scarier and more overwhelming than it would normally be.

Acute trauma can occur if a person was exposed to one traumatic event. Chronic trauma can occur when a traumatic experience has continued over a period of time. Complex trauma can occur when someone has experienced many different traumatising events.

Trauma in childhood

Traumatic events in childhood might include, for example, being involved in an accident or natural disaster. Or they could include experiences of abuse and neglect or witnessing violence.

Things that are frightening or traumatising for an adult are likely to be even more traumatising for a child. This is because the young child’s limited experience of the world and their developmental stage means they are not yet fully able to understand what’s happening to them or why.

Having a trusted adult around (ideally an attachment figure) can really help a child cope with frightening events. This is why the experience of abuse or neglect by a caregiver is always traumatising – the child is both traumatised by the abuse, and then again by that trauma being caused by someone they should be able to trust.

The experience of chronic and complex trauma in early life can have a lasting impact on an individual’s development and personality. However, with the right help, young children can be supported to make sense of distressing experiences, and any negative impact of these experiences on their life chances can be reduced.

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Other early years resources

We have a selection of resources for early years wellbeing including working with babies & young children on digital platforms.