Any event where a young person is exposed to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence has the potential to be traumatic. Exposure to such an event can occur in different ways: directly experiencing the event; witnessing an event that occurred to others; learning that the event happened to a close family member or close friend.
There are two broad categories of traumatic events – with the main difference being the frequency and duration of the traumatic experience. Type 1 traumas are single ‘events’ that are typically limited in time, such as a physical assault, natural disaster, traffic accident or witnessing a single episode of violence. Type II traumas are those in which the young person experiences multiple repeated exposures to a traumatic event, such as physical and/or sexual abuse, neglect, domestic violence or experiences of war and torture.
Everyone reacts differently to a potentially traumatic event (e.g., Copeland et al., 2007). Most young people will experience some psychological distress in the early aftermath of a traumatic experience, then go on to recover , or return to their ‘baseline’ in terms of distress and functioning; with this resilience underpinned by their usual support networks and natural coping strategies. Others will display mild to moderate levels of distress following the trauma, and may benefit from some assistance to help them recover (e.g. additional support, and some coaching with simple coping strategies). A significant minority of young people will go on to develop a mental health disorder (such as PTSD or depression) after experiencing a traumatic event and will require professional psychological treatment to recover.
How a young person experiences a trauma will be influenced by, among other things, their developmental stage. Young people may be emotionally upset, have increased anxiety, including separation anxiety particularly in young children, and sleep disturbances such as nightmares. Others may also feel fear, anger, sadness or irritability.