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How to Help Students with Trauma

Group of college students sitting with professor at the back in school library

Everyone experiences traumatic happenings, like the death of a loved one or job loss. Many people process the trauma, adjust, and move on, while others experience emotional trauma symptoms that need treatment. 

Many college students bring trauma to the university with them. College students also are at high risk of experiencing trauma during their time at university. Learning how to help students with trauma is vital in assisting them when they are in need.

Common Traumatic Events Students Face

Trauma is the emotional response to a distressing event or series of emotionally disturbing or life-threatening events. It can have a profound and lasting impact on a student’s mental and physical health, academic performance, and overall well-being. 

Trauma can affect a person’s ability to cope by diminishing their sense of self and ability to process experiences. It can distort their sense of safety, cause feelings of helplessness, and alter their everyday life. The effects of trauma also can continue impacting college students far into their adult lives. Educators and parents need to understand trauma and its potential impact and know how to support students.

Traumatic events include:

  • Physical violence
  • Sexual assault
  • Neglect
  • Death
  • Car accidents
  • Racism
  • Harassment
  • Natural disasters
  • Witness to a crime, accident, or death

“College students are exposed to the same types of stressors as the general population,” said Irving Najman, CSAT, Clinical Manager at Integrative Life Center. “A key difference with young people is that their brains aren’t yet fully developed, which may make them less equipped to handle and process traumatic stress.”

Traumatic events that many college students experience are:

  • Abuse. Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse can affect a person’s mental and emotional well-being. It can impact a student’s ability to trust others, form relationships, and feel safe.
  • Loss. Losing a loved one can be traumatic for students, whether through death, divorce, or other circumstances. It can lead to feelings of grief, guilt, and loneliness and can disrupt their daily routine and sense of stability.
  • Chronic Stressors. Exposure to chronic stressors, such as poverty, illness, family conflict, or extreme academic stress, can lead to a constant state of anxiety and worry. This stress can impact a student’s physical and mental health, academic performance, and ability to form healthy relationships.
  • Campus Lockdowns. College administrators are on high alert to keep students across the nation safe from gun violence or other dangers on campus. With this caution comes more frequent campus lockdowns. Even when officials later determine campus is safe, a lockdown and the threat or reality of mass violence on campus terrifies students.

“While college students are prone to all types of trauma experiences, there are certain types of trauma that may be more typical while at university,” Irving said. “For example, sexual assault cases are much higher among college students than in the general population. Also, traumatic happenings like the death of a beloved pet or a parent’s illness can be much more difficult for students to deal with emotionally when they’re away from home and can’t visit frequently.”

Spotting the Signs of Trauma in Students

You may not always know when a student was exposed to a traumatic event. If you’re aware of the exposure, it’s easier to discuss it with them and offer support. But regardless of their awareness, understanding common signs of emotional trauma can help you when you know something isn’t quite right with your student. 

Signs of emotional trauma to look for:

  • Anxiety or depression
  • Anger or irritability
  • Seeming disinterested in things that they used to enjoy
  • Expressions of shame or guilt
  • Difficulty forming relationships, loss of relationships, or seeming like an outsider
  • Missing class frequently or claims of being overly tired
  • Complaints of headaches or other physical pains
  • Difficulty concentrating or paying attention
  • Memory lapses or forgetfulness
  • Confusion, disorientation, or difficulty making decisions
  • Withdrawal from friends, family, or activities
  • Destructive behavior
  • Substance use or excessive risk-taking
  • Acting out or having behavioral problems
  • Self-harm or suicidal thoughts or behaviors

“If you think something is off with your student, you’re probably right,” Irving explained. “Open the door for communication by asking them how they are and if there’s anything you can do to help. Tell them you’re there if or when they need you or are ready to talk.”

Understanding Trauma Triggers in College Students

As well as understanding symptoms of emotional trauma, it’s essential to be aware of the potential triggers for students experiencing trauma and to approach these situations with sensitivity and understanding. Encouraging open communication, providing support and resources, and establishing a safe and predictable environment can help mitigate the impact of these triggers.

Examples of things that may trigger a trauma response include:

  • Crowds
  • Closed-in spaces
  • Lack of control or unexpected changes
  • Loud noises
  • Being criticized
  • Reminders of the traumatic happening, like discussing or viewing content related to a similar situation
  • Impatient, rude, or aggressive peers or faculty 

How to Help Students with Trauma 

Awareness of the potential impact of trauma on students can help educators and parents recognize when a student may have been exposed to a traumatic event and be having difficulty processing it. 

Creating a safe and supportive classroom environment, engaging proactively with students, and utilizing self-regulation strategies can help students feel more secure, manage their emotions, and succeed academically. 

To help students experiencing trauma:

  • Be Trauma-Informed. Be aware of the potential impact of traumatic experiences on students and learn to recognize symptoms of emotional trauma. If you think a student is experiencing trauma, you can approach them and offer help. Help may include leading them to campus counseling services if you’re an educator or even visiting them to help secure mental health care if you’re a parent.
  • Create a Safe and Supportive Environment. Create an inclusive and non-threatening atmosphere where students feel comfortable sharing and expressing themselves. Keep the lines of communication open and help students understand that you won’t judge them.
  • Be Compassionate, Patient, and Respectful. Show empathy and understanding toward students struggling with trauma. Avoid any actions that may trigger them.
  • Avoid Physical Contact. Be mindful of students’ boundaries and avoid any physical contact that may be perceived as threatening or triggering.
  • Proactively Engage with Students. Encourage student participation and interaction, and try to get to know each student personally. If you’re a parent, make sure to have regular contact with your student to discuss what’s going on at school and how they’re doing.
  • Provide Structure and Predictability. Establish clear rules and routines, and provide a structured and predictable environment to help students feel secure.
  • Utilize Self Regulation Strategies. Teach students self-regulation strategies to help them manage their emotions and reactions.
  • Encourage Healthy Coping Skills. Teach students healthy coping mechanisms, such as mindfulness and exercise. As an educator, help students keep things like grades or academic stress in context. As a parent, inquire about your student’s habits, like how much sleep they get.

Every person experiences trauma differently, and its impact on their lives can vary greatly. Be patient, understanding, and compassionate toward all students, and work to create a supportive and inclusive environment where students trust you to help them if they’re in need.

“The best thing you can do is to let the person know that they can come to you, and you’ll help them find the help they need,” Irving said. “You can’t force them to talk to you, but you can lead them to mental health support if and when they ask for it.”

Getting Help at ILC

Educators and parents play a critical role in recognizing emotional trauma in students and providing resources and support for them in healing. At Integrative Life Center, our trauma treatment can help students dealing with the effects of trauma. We operate from a trauma-informed perspective and can provide the support students need to heal and thrive in their academic and personal lives. Contact us to learn more.

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