Trauma and Behaviour

Trauma-based behaviour, in general, serves important adaptive functions.  It often makes sense in the context in which it first emerged however it can become counter-productive if it continues after the need for it has ceased.

Trauma-based behaviours can usually be identified as patterns or repetitive routines that play themselves out in the relationships and environments that children and young people are engaged in.

  • It can be a response to traumatic memory traces that are triggered externally by events or exchanges with others
  • It can be familiar strategies used to manage their internal states
  • It can be driven by change or unpredictability
  • It can be influenced by increasing levels of stress
  • It is very much influenced by the negative self-identity which children and young people believe to be true about themselves

Categorising trauma-based behaviour

While they can be categorised in a variety of ways, those used below connect the way in which residue of toxic stress has been identified to affect children and young people’s brain-body, memory, emotions and relationships systems.


Depending on the relational templates that have been established for them in their early phases of development, children and young people will seek out comfort from people whom they perceived as safe, consistent and nurturing.  This includes seeking out physical attention from others.  Some children, whose relational templates are inconsistent, may seek out such comfort from individuals who are not safe.  This exposes the children to rejection and also increases the possibility of them being exploited (see Sexual Expoitation).

They may engage in behaviour routines that are aimed at self-soothing such as rocking, sleeping, listening to music and eating.  These are helpful as they put them into a zone of attention and focus that supports a more relaxed state.  However these can also become a source of preoccupation and the benefit can be curtailed.  In some cases children may persist or intensify their self-comforting behaviours despite it not working in relieving their internal stress and then are forced to deal with secondary consequences of this behavior


It is critical to consider how the behavior of traumatised children and young people can act as self-protective measures, e.g. avoiding intimacy at all cost for their own protection.  Self-protective behaviour can be initiated in response to uncertainty and unpredictability in the environment of traumatised children and young people.  They often revert to actions they have used before that relate to past experiences of trauma.

Further Resources