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Pandemic-Related Traumatic Stress in Children and Families

Managing the potential repercussions of traumatic pandemic experiences.

Key points

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many challenges to families nationwide, triggering new trauma and exacerbating existing risk factors.
  • In June 2020, 40.9 percent of respondents had at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition, according to research.
  • Pandemic-related traumatic experiences could compromise children's sense of safety and make them vulnerable to mental health disorders.
  • Adopting trauma-informed practices in schools and workplaces could increase psychological safety and help children and families recover.

Uncertainty, fear, stress, and socio-economic difficulties are among the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought on families nationwide. For some, the pandemic has triggered new trauma; for others, it has exacerbated existing risk factors such as violence and abuse.

The established physical distancing protocols have inflicted loneliness and distress, while circumstances such as unemployment and the absence of school structure have added to the psychological risk factors affecting youth and their families.

In June 2020, a national research study assessing mental health, substance abuse, and suicidal ideations occurring during the pandemic showed the following statistics: 40.9 percent of respondents reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition. This included 30.9 percent who experienced anxiety and depressive disorders and 26.3 percent who reported symptoms of trauma and stress-related disorder associated with the pandemic. Another 13.3 percent reported an increase in substance abuse because of the need to cope with COVID-19 (CDC, 2020).

Additionally, over one-quarter of the adolescents who participated in the survey said they had seriously considered suicide in the last 30 days—a significantly higher percentage when compared to other age groups.

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Traumatic Stress During the Pandemic Could Have Lasting Effects

The pandemic-related traumatic experiences could lead the brain’s threat detection systems to become overactive. This hypervigilant state can especially compromise children’s sense of safety while increasing their vulnerability to mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.

Making matters worse, children may also have a distorted or augmented perception of danger to themselves and others, which makes it more difficult for them to differentiate from safe to unsafe situations.

Some of the main challenges facing children and families during the pandemic that may trigger traumatic stress include:

  • Children with trauma histories, as well as those who are experiencing elevated levels of stress caused by the pandemic crisis, might be less likely to engage in remote learning. They might also exhibit ongoing difficulties regulating their emotions and behaviors.
  • Children may suffer from traumatic separation when removed from the care of a parent or close family member due to COVID-19 hospitalization.
  • Families who experienced the loss of a loved one who died alone in a hospital and who were unable to observe traditional mourning rituals may suffer from grief and guilt.
  • Families who quarantine together for a prolonged period of time may be at risk for increased conflict due to social isolation, financial difficulties, and decreased social support.
  • The economic pressures following a job loss during the pandemic have added to the risk for interpersonal violence as well as neglect.
  • Some families have struggled with technology, which has been a crucial tool to support children and young adults with their remote learning. Adults may have technical difficulties accessing unemployment, food stamps, and other benefits during the pandemic.
  • Disruption with traditional schooling makes it more difficult to report child abuse, identify mental health challenges and suicidal ideations; thus ultimately making it more difficult to connect children and families to community services.
  • The family members of healthcare, law enforcement, and other frontline workers providing essential services during the pandemic have been exposed to traumatic experiences as they fear for their loved ones’ health and safety.

Research on trauma has shown its long-term effects. For example, a neurological study of a group of people who lived in close proximity to the World Trade Center in New York during the attacks of September 11, 2001, found that their brain threat detection systems were highly over-active a full five years after the event took place (Ganzel et al., 2007).

While it is certainly difficult to know the long-term effects of post-pandemic trauma, we should anticipate and prepare for myriad potential risk factors by adopting trauma-informed practices in schools and workplaces. Trauma-informed practices refer to an approach where all parties involved understand and respond to the effects of traumatic stress on those who have contact with the system, such as children, caregivers, staff, and service providers.

Besides family members, those closest to children are educators and school staff. Therefore, the school’s atmosphere should infuse and sustain knowledge and skills related to trauma awareness. In addition, discipline policies, programs, and the classroom environment are important aspects to consider in becoming trauma-informed schools. Such evidence-based practices increase psychological safety and support the recovery of children and families, as well as their ability to learn and thrive.


Ganzel, Barbara & Kim, Pilyoung & Gilmore, Heather & Tottenham, Nim & Temple, Elise. (2013). (Stress/Trauma) Stress and the healthy adolescent brain: Evidence for the neural embedding of life events. Development and Psychopathology. 25. 879-889.

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