By Chow Kit Seen, Senior Social Worker at Epworth Family Welfare

Trauma is an emotional response to painful and distressing situations that overwhelms a person’s usual coping abilities, causing feelings of helplessness and powerlessness. It can have lasting adverse effects that impedes one’s daily functioning, resulting in a deterioration of physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual well-being.

Big “T” trauma is often associated with life- threatening events such as natural disaster, terrorism or sexual assault. As a result of such encounters, the person might feel a loss of control over the situation, evoking feelings of anxiety and fear.

Small “t” trauma is the accumulation of less pronounced everyday events. Such traumas are often overlooked as they do not seem overtly life-threatening.

Nonetheless, the accumulative effect of multiple small “t” trauma events can eventually incapacitate one’s emotional functioning. Some examples are divorce, interpersonal conflict, or loss of employment. For children, small “t” trauma events could include cyberbullying, going through a minor medical procedure, and experiencing loss and grief.


  • Acute Trauma is an exposure to an overwhelming single event that lasts for a short period of time. For example, experiencing a car accident or the sudden loss of a loved one.
  • Chronic Trauma is when one experiences many traumatic events over a prolonged period of time. These can be recurrent traumatic events of the same kind. For example, being physically abused by a parent for many years.
  • Complex Trauma refers to children who have been repeatedly exposed to chronic abuse and/or neglect at a young age (below 5 years old) over a prolonged period of time. Complex trauma usually involves multiple recurrences of the same traumatic event, or multiple occurrences of different traumatic events. These events often happen early in life and are usually caused by a caregiver. Hence, this negatively impacts a child’s ability to form a secure attachment, emotional coping mechanism and a healthy sense of self.
  • Developmental Trauma includes neglect, abandonment, physical, sexual and emotional abuse, and witnessing violence. Every child is dependent on his parents for care. When left unattended, it will affect the child mentally, emotionally, and socially. Such adverse impacts are worsened when his parents are the cause
    of his negative feelings.


Young children who experienced traumatic events will have learnt certain traumatic responses as a means for survival. Ordinary situations may be perceived as threats and trigger traumatic responses.

The four Fs of trauma response describe the different ways in which one may react when faced with threatening situations. The goal of these stress responses is to minimise, end or avoid the danger, allowing them to return to a state of calm and control.

When one believes that the threat he is facing can be overpowered, the FIGHT response will be engaged. Signs would include clenching of fist and glaring.

When one believes that the danger cannot be overcome, the FLIGHT response will be engaged by running away or leaving the situation.

In situations when one believes that neither fighting nor fleeing would alleviate the threat, the FREEZE response may be engaged. The signs include numbness in the body, significant changes in heart rate, and withdrawal.

When the above traumatic stress responses are not effective, the FAWN response may be engaged. The person learns to comply with and appease the abuser so as to avoid aggravating the situation. True emotions towards the abusive situation and/or the abuser will be denied and suppressed.

Although not many people may have experienced big “T” trauma in their lives, small “t” trauma may be more common to everyone. Some would be able to recover on their own, while others may require professional help. By seeking help from counsellors and therapists, they can face the trauma events that they experienced, identify appropriate stress responses and learn effective strategies to cope with stressful situations.