How children and families experience trauma

Children or family members might be affected by trauma because they might have been exposed to trauma through:

-          abusive relationships

-          violence

-          witnessing or being involved in an accident

-          natural disasters and climate emergencies

-          work (e.g. first responders, defence members and veteran personnel)

-          bullying

-          moral injury

-          refugee experiences (e.g. war, terrorism, famine, dangerous journeys, persecution, detention camps)

-          other experiences.

Children might have experienced trauma directly, indirectly or through transfer from their family members.

Defence and veteran families

Children from military and veteran families are more likely to experience trauma than other children. The US National Centre for Children in Poverty state:

    • 'Wives of deployed personnel experience more stress, a factor known to increase risk for medical complications of pregnancy.
    • Children ages 3 to 5 with a deployed parent exhibited greater behavioral symptoms than did peers without a deployed parent.
    • Children of military families ages 11 to 17 were found to have a higher prevalence of emotional and behavioral difficulties than children in the general population.
    • Parental deployment places school-age children and adolescents at higher risk for a range of adverse mood and behavioral changes: anger, apathy, anxiety, depression, withdrawal, decline in school performance, loss of interest in normal activities, and social isolation'.

Additionally, military and veteran families are often exposed to suicide within their own families or other families and friends they know. Military personnel are less likely to die from suicide than the general population than civilians. However, the rate is much higher, with male veterans 24% more likely to die of suicide, while females are twice as likely (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2021). Males who experience involuntary separation from the forces are alarmingly high (73.1 per 100,000).

Suicide seems to spread between people, groups and communities, but the research does not explain why this occurs (Cheng et al., 2014). Suicide can even become part of the culture within military and veteran groups as a way to cope with extreme trauma (Cerel et al., 2015).

This increases the psychological risk for those exposed to these groups, the member, the veterans and their families. Members of these families often experience higher levels of social shame and distress than the general population (Harrington-LaMorie et al., 2018).

The closer family members are to those who have committed suicide, the greater the risk for poorer psychological outcomes (Cerel et al., 2016). It can increase the risk of suicide attempts and death (Maple et al., 2019).

The level of risk of knowing someone who suicides doesn't seem to be affected by the level of closeness to the person (Hill et al., 2020). Exposure to suicide increases levels of distress, depression, anxiety and thoughts about suicide (suicidal ideation)(Cerel et al., 2015).

Do people recover from the trauma they experience in childhood?

Children who experience trauma in childhood need to feel safe and loved. With professional support and caring adults, children can and do recover. The Children's Bureau states:

'Although childhood trauma can have serious, lasting effects, there is hope. With the help of supportive, caring adults, children can and do recover'.

There are many resources in this module to help you support children who have experienced trauma.


Some of this section has been adapted from work by Professor Myf Maple (UNE).

Last modified: Friday, 3 February 2023, 7:36 PM