Secondary Trauma (STS)

Secondary trauma (STS) is a form of trauma that a person experiences not due to something that has happened to them directly but rather due to some indirect connection (secondhand) to a traumatic experience.

With children, secondary trauma can occur if they are repeatedly exposed to particularly distressing details of the trauma experienced by their peers or others they may closely know. Those who experience STS will have at least some symptoms commonly associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A small proportion of these individuals will experience full-blown PTSD due to secondary trauma exposure.

Symptoms

Intrusive symptoms: Your child, or a child you know, might experience unwanted and painful trauma-related memories, dreams, and/or flashbacks. You might also experience distressing psychological or physical reactions to reminders of the trauma.

Avoidance symptoms: You might actively avoid anything that reminds you of the trauma (e.g., memories, thoughts, emotions, people/places/things, discussions, situations).

Arousal symptoms: You might find that you are more irritable and prone to angry outbursts, possibly engaging in self-destructive or reckless behaviors. It could be difficult to relax, too. You might experience concentration difficulties, sleep problems, and an exaggerated startle response (e.g., when someone comes up behind you unexpectedly or walks into the room).

Causes of Secondary Traumatic Stress

STS reactions can result from exposure to the distressing details of the traumatic experience of others, such as sexual assault, physical assault, severe injury, death, or suicide.

Potential causes of secondary traumatic stress are:

  • Sexual assault
  • Physical assault
  • Child abuse or neglect
  • Motor vehicle accident
  • Serious disfigurement or injury
  • Act of nature (e.g., flood, hurricane, tornado)
  • Terrorist attack
  • School shooting
  • Torture
  • A violent or gruesome death
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