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Teachers, Education Staff & Youth Workers

When a child or young person has witnessed or heard about a critical incident, which is one where there was terror, powerless and overwhelm,  it is vital that those adults around the child are able to help them navigate through this distressing event with wisdom. Professionals can be equipped to know how to reduce the impact of the trauma and avoid them becoming further traumatised. 

In working out how to help children recover from a critical incident experience, it is important to work out what context they are coming from first. 

Is this the first traumatic experience they have had?

If so then the recovery route looks quite different to if they have seen and and experienced other frightening events.

Have they known other losses or stresses in their life? Are they children who have survived other significant traumatic experiences such as abuse, neglect or ongoing bullying?

If that is the case, sometimes the feelings and emotions they may have due to this critical incident can become muddled with other experiences where they felt terrified, powerless and overwhelmed, leading them to need restoration from all the traumatic experiences they have had. 

The trauma continuum theory can help us know how to be trauma recovery focused rather than just 'manage' the current distressing trauma symptoms which are interfering with their day to day life. It is vital that the recovery plan starts with assessment of 'what is going on?' and 'what has gone on before?' 

The Trauma Continuum is a theory created by Betsy de Thierry which helps work out how to help the child you work with to recover from trauma. Here is a little video to help you understand that.

Human connection enables us to feel  safe and facilitates healing

de Thierry 2020

(pp.90-93 The Simple Guide to Collective Trauma)

Type 1, 2 & 3 Trauma

Type 1 trauma

Type I trauma is an experience where the child may have felt terrified, powerless and overwhelmed but they are able to speak about the experience if they have some relational support. If they have experienced type I trauma experiences before and now have witnessed or heard about a critical incident, they would need to have someone to speak with to help them process their experiences. The adult needs to be able to listen, validate their emotions and give them simple ideas for how to help them continue to process the feelings, emotions and thoughts they may have about the event.

Type 2 & 3 trauma

When a child has a history of experiencing Type II or III traumas, they will have a reaction to the critical incident that is different from those who have not been exposed to such terrifying realities before. These children may have either:

A blase approach - where they appear to be 'fine' and may even laugh or make fun of others who are expressing any vulnerability or fear or sadness. These children have usually had to learn how to 'not feel' or 'suppress or hide their feelings' because they haven't got anyone who is able to offer them 'enough' consistent, emotionally available support. They need professionals to offer space for them to eventually be able to be honest and vulnerable, without needing to protect themselves from adults who may tease, bully or use their vulnerability against them in the future. 

These children need relationships to be built up over a long time where they can eventually explore their feelings with less terror of vulnerability. 


A dominating approach - where they want to control other peoples' reaction to the situation. They may speak a lot, tell others strongly how they feel and not enable them to slowly reflect themselves. These children are often used to being carers and being in control and they find a sense of relief in feeling powerful rather than powerless. 

An overwhelmed approach- where they are tearful and articulating that they cannot carry on with the expectations on them as they need help. These children are often living in a state of overwhelm and need help trusting adults enough that they can begin to explore what is making them feel overwhelmed. Sadly they can rarely do that verbally due to the trauma that causes them to be unable to easily use the part of their brain responsible for speech. It is also vital that these children are given skilled help that has a robust understanding of safeguarding processes and trauma, because otherwise the adult may unintentionally over simplify any suggestions or strategies for managing the fear- which is not just what they have just witnessed but all the previous trauma. 

An over-responsible approach- where they appear to feel responsible for the problems that led to the critical incident and find themselves in self blame or shame. Sometimes their reactions of self blame can seem so unrelated to the incident but the child cannot see that and is taking everything personally. This is usually due to unprocessed previous trauma and the shame of other experiences where they were blamed by the perpetrators.

Other trauma presentations; 

A child may show:

  • aggression or anger or be on edge or agitated

  • extra sensitivity or seem to be fragile or nervous 

  • a flight response where they easily run off at the slightest trigger

  • a lack of interest in food or indulging in food as comfort 

  • a lack of emotional connection to others or seem isolated or a 'loner'

  • a clingy relationship to others with insecurity and fear showing 

  • more tiredness or lethargy and a difficulty in getting up 

  • more daydreaming or zoning out behaviours 

  • a dependancy on screens, shows, gaming etc 

  • tiredness due to nightmares, night terrors or inability to sleep deeply

  • anxiety or hyper vigilance so they are alert for any other traumatic situations 

For other trauma symptoms and how to help a child please see; The Simple Guide to Collective Trauma. 

If you're seeing children display these symptoms, the worst thing you can do is:

  • shout at them

  • isolate them from other people

  • tell them to calm down

  • shame them

  • belittle them

  • tease them

  • listen, nod, and give simple advice that makes them roll their eyes. Don't patronise them.

Further resources & support

Do refer on if you need more professional support for the young person. Training is available here if you would like to be further equipped to work with trauma.

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