Children are highly vulnerable to indirect sources of trauma, especially the media. Amanda Harris, Psychologist and Director of the Australian Child & Adolescent Trauma, Loss & Grief Network, tells us about secondary trauma and how families can minimise the risk.

What is secondary trauma and what are the main sources?

Secondary trauma can arise in children who are indirectly exposed to a traumatic event. Indirect exposure comes from being around people who have been traumatised, perhaps, by listening to their graphic stories or even experiencing their erratic behaviours. It can also involve explicit, repeated exposure to traumatic events through the TV, internet and other media.

Some people are more vulnerable to developing secondary trauma, especially if they have experienced trauma previously, have mental health issues, or are going through other difficulties in their lives. Children are already particularly susceptible, due to their developmental age and their limited ability to understand traumatic experiences.

How powerful is the media as a source of secondary trauma?

One of the biggest sources of secondary trauma is media exposure to disasters, both natural and man-made. Now, with 24-hour news channels and on-the-spot media access to disaster sites, we frequently see repeated and prolonged coverage of traumatic scenes. This often means witnessing the loss of homes and, sometimes, lives.

Social media can also heighten a child’s natural vulnerability to secondary trauma, as they may be re-exposed over and over to the details of a disaster (or other trauma) by discussing or reading about the event online. They can also discover upsetting details from which their parents may otherwise have been able to shield them.

What behaviours can indicate secondary trauma? 

Children who have secondary trauma often display similar symptoms to those directly affected by trauma. In children, we would be looking for changes in the child’s ‘normal’ state. We know that trauma can impact on children emotionally, socially and educationally, so we would really be looking for changes in these areas. For instance, children may:

  • have problems with sleep (ie need more help to settle or experience nightmares)

  • have more trouble managing their emotions (eg they may become more angry, upset or ‘hyper’ than usual, and have difficulties self-soothing) 

  • have difficulties concentrating at school, with memory, and in organising themselves

  • seem withdrawn (eg they may not want to play with their peers as much, and may spend more time alone)

  • seem worried, anxious or sad

  • lose their sense of safety (ie think that the world is no longer a safe place)

  • regress to behaviours that they have passed developmentally (eg they may have some separation anxiety again, or show difficulties with toileting).

What are the long-term effects of secondary trauma?

The longer-term effects of secondary trauma really vary depending on the child’s own risk and protective factors. It is more likely that the effects would be minimised if a child has good attachments and supports within their family and community, has no previous trauma, and has few other difficulties in their lives. Other children may be more vulnerable to long-term difficulties associated with the heightened stress response that can accompany secondary trauma. Over time, these difficulties can lead to anxiety, depression and problems with learning and education. Recognising the signs and impacts of secondary trauma as early as possible is one key way to promote better long-term outcomes.

How can families minimise the risk of secondary trauma without being overly protective? 

  • Be aware that secondary trauma can be a problem
    Children’s exposure to media and social media coverage of traumatic events should be minimised. This doesn’t mean shielding children completely from the news and other media, but it does mean being aware of how much coverage of a disaster a child has had and putting some boundaries around this. For example, a child may watch some coverage on the morning or evening news, but they should not be able to repeatedly watch coverage on TV, the computer or through other media.

  • Speak to children about what they have seen or heard
    Some children can develop misconceptions about the media coverage they have seen. For example, they may not understand that the bushfire they are watching on TV is happening many hundreds of kilometers away from them, or that the ongoing footage they are seeing is of a single fire rather than several fires all at once.

  • Provide comfort and consistency
    Families can also help their children by reassuring them that they are safe, and by continuing in the normal rhythms and routines of daily life.

  • Monitor their own reactions
    Children often look to the responses of their parents and other carers to be reassured that they are safe and secure. It is invaluable to demonstrate to children that emotions and worries can be managed in healthy ways.

For more information and resources on childhood trauma, see the  Trauma and Grief Network.