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Memories: everyone has them. The smell of cookies, cakes, or pies from the oven, the gentle breeze of a sunny day, the beauty of a waterfall, a song, a perfume, lights, sounds, words, and scenarios, all trigger something in everyone’s memory. When someone has experienced trauma, especially children, a ‘trigger’ can mean the difference between a pleasant and unpleasant day, interaction, emotion, or complete turn of events in a child’s life. Webster’s dictionary defines the word ‘trigger’ as: “to cause an intense and usually negative emotional reaction in someone”. Anything that reminds a child of a traumatic event can be a ‘trigger’.

Trauma Triggers – Two Examples

Sally: Sally is one of the brightest 4-year-old students in Mrs. Jones preschool class. She is attentive, works well with other children, is engaging, curious, and a joy to teach. When the class was learning about community helpers, Mrs. Jones invited a local police officer to speak to the children about the police being their “friend”, and jobs that police do. When the policeman (who we will call Sam) entered the classroom on Monday morning, Sally began screaming, crying, pulling her hair, shaking, stomping her feet, and shouting “police are bad!” while lunging toward Sam. Mrs. Jones was surprised by this behavior and immediately takes Sally to an empty classroom to calm down while Sam continues to talk with Sally’s classmates.

When Sally was picked up from preschool by her aunt later that day, her aunt explained that both of Sally’s parents were arrested late at night, and are incarcerated. Now, whenever Sally sees a policeman, a police car, or hears a siren, she becomes panicked and afraid. Sally’s trauma is linked to a frightening event involving police taking her parents away and her being removed from her home. Policemen were Sally’s trigger.

Roger: Roger is 5 and attends a preschool located near a railroad track. When Roger hears the train cars bump together during outdoor playtime he screams and hides behind his teacher. The teacher finds out that Roger was in a serious traffic accident last summer where two cars collided, seriously injuring his cousin. The noise of metal colliding is Roger’s trigger.

These are just two of many examples of ‘triggers’ that can cause negative emotional reactions in children. Triggers are often unknown to anyone, other than the person who has suffered the trauma and makes the link between the event and the emotion.

Triggers: These responses are considered internal triggers that come from within based on events that the child was involved in that occurred in the past. The event stimulated a strong emotional response, such as fear, and dramatically increased the level of cortisol, the stress hormone in the brain. The stronger the emotion, the stronger the memory of the event. A trigger takes the child straight back to that situation as if it were happening again.

External triggers may include places, circumstances, or even people that are in a child’s life and can trigger negative behaviors. Going to a football game may remind a child of the argument that their parents had on the way to the game. So, each time the family goes to a football game the child is anxious and on alert, waiting for the argument to start.

All of us manage emotional triggers at some time. A memory, smell or that feeling of an unpleasant but familiar place can cause us to be on high alert. Triggers can promote happy memories but also traumatic memories. How we manage the outcome comes with practice. A young child is still learning to self-regulate and managing triggers seems like an insurmountable task. The survival part of the brain is going into overdrive trying to protect us from perceived danger brought on by the trigger.

How to support and respond?

As adults, we must make sure that we model self-regulation by talking about our feelings and our strategy to manage how we feel, for example, “I’m feeling worried about those noises so I’m going to take some deep breaths and calm my brain”. Sometimes this can be easier said than done, particularly when we can’t identify what the trigger could be, such as in Sally and Roger’s case. When we don’t know how to handle the situation we may find ourselves going to a default mode of minimizing the emotion and level of empathy that is needed in the situation.

Have you ever heard an adult telling a child:

  • There’s nothing to be afraid of
  • Big boys don’t cry
  • Look, there’s nothing there
  • Stop that now!
    Information adapted from the Child Welfare Information Gateway (2014) suggests a different approach to supporting children who experience triggers associated with trauma.
  1. Identify the triggers. Sometimes what we say or do as adults can unknowingly trigger a child’s behavior. Try to give children the space to tell you how they are feeling and instigate conversations with parents or caregivers sooner rather than later.
  2. Be emotionally available to listen to children in a calm space. Giving children a blanket or sensory item to hold while they talk can help take the focus away from the event and onto the fluffy material.
  3. When responding, use a calm, low voice to soothe the child and also keep you calm as you may hear some difficult information.
  4. Listen to what the child is saying and also notice what is being said with body language or what is being drawn by the child. Note the physical changes that the child experiences when being triggered.
  5. Provide many positive, nonthreatening experiences for children. Give the child choices so that they feel they have some control over their lives.
  6. Be patient. Overcoming a traumatic experience takes time and sometimes professional help from an outside agency.
  7. Routines! Routines! Routines! Having a consistent day-to-day schedule and routines for children, along with having the same caregiver for children as much as possible is important.

The Way Forward

Supporting children triggered by common daily events can be a difficult task. Especially when we find it difficult to identify the trigger. Observing and documenting behaviors before an outburst, during an outburst and the outcome of the outburst can help to identify a pattern of behavior and trigger. Perhaps it’s sitting to a particular child, a noise, a word, a quick movement that initiates the emotional connection in the brain. Ensuring that the child experiences a sense of safety, and feels secure and valued can help minimize the effects of the trigger. There are many agencies that support the mental health and wellbeing of adults and children so remember that additional help is available if needed.

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References

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2014). Parenting a child who has experienced trauma. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau

©Dr. Kathryn Murray and Dr. Sharon Little, 2021.

About Dr. Kathryn Murray

Dr. Kathryn Murray is an early childhood pedagogical expert and creator of the Brain-SET Formula© for Classroom Design. She is the CEO of Future Strong Education – a global early childhood consultancy organization based in Australia. Kathryn supports educators and parents to give children the best possible start in life.

About Dr. Sharon Little

Dr. Sharon Little is an early childhood program lead and faculty in North Carolina. She is also a project coach, trainer, private early education consultant, speaker, and strong advocate for early childhood education. Sharon supports early educators, the community, and other early childhood professionals in trauma-informed, developmentally appropriate practices, diversity, and higher education subject matter.

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