Support Your Child Through Medical Trauma

A Parent's Guide: Medical Trauma in Kids

October 24, 2023

Medical Trauma: A Guide for Parents

We interviewed Sarah Stasica, former graduate intern with Any Baby Can's No Estás Solo program and founder of Medical Trauma Support, to discuss how medical trauma shows up for kids and what parents can do to support their child before or after having a difficult medical experience.

Statistics on medical trauma in children, pediatric PTSD


Data via


(1) Copeland WE, Keeler G, Angold A, Costello EJ. Traumatic events and posttraumatic stress in childhood. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2007 May;64(5):577-84. doi: 10.1001/archpsyc.64.5.577. PMID: 17485609.

(2) Kahana SY, Feeny NC, Youngstrom EA, Drotar D. Posttraumatic stress in youth experiencing illnesses and injuries: An exploratory meta-analysis. Traumatology. 2006;12(2):148–161. doi: 10.1177/1534765606294562

What is medical trauma?

No parent wants to see their child get hurt, feel sick or struggle with something. Medical procedures, diagnoses and other health events can be challenging for both children and parents alike. Medical trauma, or medical traumatic stress, refers to distressing experiences that individuals encounter during those events. Trauma can potentially come from a wide range of medical experiences, including an ER visit, shots, dental procedures, surgeries and even childbirth.

There's not one definition of what “counts” as trauma. Trauma varies from person to person. While one individual may not be traumatized by a medical event, another may be deeply affected.

This intense emotional distress can come from a combination of factors, including:

  • Fear of the unknown
  • Experiencing pain
  • Feelings of helplessness or loss of control

Trauma occurs when an event is so overwhelming that the person’s body protects them by temporarily setting aside the emotions and sensations associated with it.

This is a normal human response to a hard situation. Unfortunately, trauma can lead to ongoing challenges.

What does medical trauma look like?

Understanding how medical trauma may present in your child is crucial to provide them with the support they need.

Children who have experienced medical trauma may act out in unexpected ways. They may have a really big response that seems out of proportion. It can come up in medical situations, or in everyday life when something triggers a memory. You may not even make the connection, but the child’s body is reacting to a prior traumatic situation, which is called a trauma response.

A trauma response is an internal alarm system that is designed to keep the child safe. But the alarm can sound even when there’s no actual danger. A Band-Aid can trigger the memory of an adhesive from surgery, or a certain smell can bring them back to the ER.

For children who have experienced medical trauma, life may feel more scary in ways that it didn’t before.

"I see anxiety or depression as evidence of a human who has gone through a hard time and needs extra support,” says Sarah Stasica of Medical Trauma Support.

Any kind of trauma rewires the brain. But the brain is flexible, especially in children, and there are coping strategies that lead to overcoming past trauma.

What to do if your child has experienced medical trauma

If your child has experienced medical trauma, here are some strategies for helping them heal and build resilience:

  1. Foster a strong bond and connection: Ensure that your child feels supported and loved. Create a safe space for them to express their emotions.
  2. Encourage self-care: Teach your child the importance of basic self-care, such as getting enough sleep, eating nourishing foods, engaging in physical activity, and spending time outdoors.
  3. Create consistency in your household: Establishing routines and providing a stable environment can help your child feel more secure and reduce anxiety.
  4. Seek professional support: If you notice that your child is struggling and not making progress in overcoming medical trauma, reach out to therapy or medical support teams for additional help. Family therapy can be especially beneficial in processing difficult emotions together.

How to prevent further medical trauma

There are steps parents can take to minimize medical trauma in children, like these age-appropriate strategies to prepare your child for medical procedures.

First, find a trauma-informed care provider. Some groups have specialists who can talk through even the smallest procedures. Trauma-informed pediatric doctors and medical providers can help parents advocate for the child. They’re also more likely not to rush through things that may add to the family’s stress.

Be open and honest with your child in an age-appropriate way. Make sure to address their concerns and answer any questions they may have. This can vary by age and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has some ways to prepare your toddler, school-aged child or teen.

  • With an adolescent or teen, you can start talking about it in advance. Have them write down worries or questions. Don’t dismiss their concerns but discuss them and offer reassurance. Don’t force them to sit and talk about it, but give casual opportunities to share. If your child has complex medical needs, our CARE program may be able to help.
  • Talk to your toddler the morning of, not the week before which can lead to anticipatory fear. Use simple language and help them know what to expect.
  • If your child is an infant, you can offer physical proximity, if possible, and model calmness before, during and after any medical situation.

Depending on their age, you can prepare them for a procedure by using visuals. Show your child pictures of medical equipment they may see or what the doctors may look like or wear. Reassure them that the medical professionals are there to help.

Preparing yourself as a parent of a child needing medical care

This is hard! As parents we are stressed ourselves and may have feelings of sadness, guilt or fear.

First, give yourself time to prepare. Express your feelings with a partner or friend, process those emotions, and have a plan for how you care for yourself during the procedure. This way you’ll be better prepared to support your child in a calm, caring and connected manner. You can find more links and tips by downloading Preparing Your Child for a Medical Procedure.

Ask the doctor about any potential pain or discomfort your child may experience after the procedure, what they may look like and what you can expect in terms of recovery. Let your child know what they may feel like, and that it is normal and temporary.

One of the most important things you can do is slow things down. As long as it’s not a medical emergency, even talking more slowly and encouraging breaks or pauses can help a child feel more calm and in control. The more you can slow down and connect, show them that they’re not alone, the better they will feel—and so will you.

Any kind of trauma rewires the brain. But the brain is flexible, especially in children, and there are coping strategies that lead to overcoming past trauma.

Understanding medical trauma in children

Medical trauma can have a lasting impact on children with medical diagnoses or complex healthcare needs, especially if the trauma goes unaddressed. However, even by understanding that medical trauma exists, you’re better able to support your child!

Addressing medical trauma takes time, patience and, sometimes, professional support. With a compassionate and understanding approach, your child can navigate their healthcare experiences with greater ease and emotional well-being.

For more information on Pediatric Medical Traumatic Stress, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network has many resources for families and medical providers. There you can find information specific to childhood cancer, chronic conditions, hospital stays, illnesses, and talking to your child about medical trauma. They also have resources in Spanish.


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