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Effects

Events that refugees have experienced related to war or persecution can all be called “traumatic events.” It is important to note that children are very resilient and can often cope with difficult experiences and events in healthy and productive ways. Such children may not display any symptoms and may not need service providers to intervene. However, for some children, exposure to traumatic events has a profound and lasting effect on their daily functioning. Exposure to traumatic events can cause the following general symptoms in children of all ages:

  • Stomach aches, headaches
  • Crying a lot
  • Fear or anxiety
  • Sadness or irritability
  • Thoughts about the traumatic event that won't go away
  • Avoiding thinking or talking about anything that reminds him or her of the traumatic event
  • Acting as if the event is happening right now (when it is something that occurred in the past)
  • Trouble managing behavior or emotions
  • Pains in the body that don't seem to have a physical cause
  • Hopelessness
  • Nightmares
  • Trouble paying attention
  • Trouble falling asleep, or sleeping too much
  • Getting upset when things happen that remind him or her of the traumatic event
  • Lack of desire to play with others or take part in activities that her or she used to enjoy

Age-Specific Effects

The impact of exposure to traumatic events on children may be different depending on the child’s age and stage of development. There are some signs of distress as a result of exposure to traumatic events that are specific to a child’s developmental stage. For example:

Preschool children Elementary school children Middle and high school-aged youth
  • Bed wetting
  • Thumb sucking
  • Acting younger than their age
  • Trouble separating from their parents
  • Temper tantrums
  • Aggressive behavior like hitting, kicking, throwing things, or biting
  • Not playing with other kids their age
  • Repetitive playing out of events related to trauma exposure
  • Changes in their behavior such as aggression, anger, irritability, withdrawal from others, and sadness
  • Trouble at school
  • Trouble with peers
  • Fear of separation from parents
  • Fear of something bad happening
  • A sense of responsibility or guilt for the bad things that have happened
  • Feelings of shame or embarrassment
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Changes in how they think about the world
  • Loss of faith
  • Problems in relationships including peers, family, and teachers
  • Conduct problems

Interference with Learning

Some refugee children may struggle to adjust to new cultural norms and expectations, the new school environment, and a new language. It can be challenging to identify trauma-related symptoms in refugee children at school. Children who exhibit disruptive behaviors as a response to a trauma reminder may appear to be “oppositional” or “unmotivated.” Traumatic stress symptoms can impact attention and learning in the classroom. Some refugee children may also experience cognitive, language-based, or medical difficulties that interfere with learning. Cultural and linguistic barriers may interfere with staff’s ability to recognize trauma related symptoms and/or distinguish these symptoms from other challenges such as cognitive or language delays or normal adjustment to a new language and culture.