LEARN It! Challenge 3 of 9
In Progress

Cognitive Changes

When you see the child, is it difficult for them to think clearly, or do they get confused more easily than in the past? How is their memory, or their ability to concentrate?

When someone has been in a situation which they feel was traumatic for them, changes in how their brain and mind works may become a concern.

Learn some of the more common cognitive reactions to trauma below:

Negative Thoughts

All teens think about negative things or have negative thoughts at times. Following a trauma, it is not uncommon for such thoughts to occupy more and more of our thinking. Negative thoughts might include:

  • I’ll never like living here.
  • I  should have…
  • If only I had…

After time, such thoughts can run through our minds, and we are hardly aware of them. They are sometimes referred to as automatic negative thoughts, they just pop into our heads.

Disoriented & Confused

Is it difficult for them to keep track of what day it is, or do they have to really think about which classes they have on a particular day?

 Do any of the following scenarios seem familiar to you?

  • It is difficult for them to make sense out of homework assignments. They ask you multiple what they are supposed to do.
  • They momentarily forget where they are or where they are going. They may sit in the wrong seat or go to class on the wrong day.

When these experiences start to become bothersome, it may mean that the person is somewhat disoriented. Following a traumatic event, our brain can go into ‘overload’ mode and lose efficiency. Everything seems to take longer and is often not done very well.

If these behaviors last for more than a few days, it is time to take action.


  • Have the number of dreams they have increased since the trauma?
  • Have those dreams become more vivid and frightening?
  • Is there anything about those dreams which reminds them of a recent trauma?

The psychologists and other scientists who study dreams and dreaming tell us that dreams serve a number of purposes, including helping us work through events that happened during the day. For some, who have had a traumatic experience, it is as if they are re-living the trauma in their dreams, sometimes again and again. Some teens report that they have dreams which are scary, but they cannot remember the dream. Waking up from a nightmare-type dream can be really upsetting. It may be difficult to get back to sleep, and then lack of sleep becomes a concern.

Obsessive & Fatalistic Thinking

How often do you have a conversation with someone where and they keep talking about one thing over and over again? When this happens, it’s called obsessive thinking.

Do they sometimes think that no matter what they do, it won’t be right? Or think that if they do (or do not do) a certain thing that something terrible will happen to them or their family or their friend? This is called fatalistic thinking

Continuously thinking about any one thing can really interfere with getting things done. When the thoughts are negative, and especially when they include images of traumatic events, they can keep one feeling discouraged, sad or frightened. Obsessive thoughts can become like internal commands; they make it difficult for us to function at our best.  

There may be times following a traumatic event that a person’s brain becomes so focused on possible threat or danger that thinking becomes constricted or even distorted. If it’s too difficult for someone to clear such thoughts from their mind, anxiety and even feelings of panic can occur.


Have they been through a traumatic experience but cannot remember specific details of what happened?

The human brain is truly amazing in so many ways. Brain researchers have learned that when someone is involved in a traumatic incident, their brain somehow ‘knows’ whether or not remembering what happened would be too overwhelming. If the person’s brain ‘decides’ that it is overwhelming, it stores the memory in such a way that the person cannot bring it to consciousness. This mean that it cannot be remembered easily. This kind of ‘brain decision’ is both good and bad news. The good news is that the person can be free from painful thoughts while they heal. The bad news is that those memories can be remembered at a later time.

If some traumatic experience makes it hard for you to think clearly and/or if your thoughts increase feelings of fear or anxiety, it is time to ask for help.

For most teens it is very, very difficult to talk to an adult (or anyone for that matter) about thoughts or memories, mostly because of the fear that talking about those things out loud might make them come true.

Talk to an adult you can trust to accept what you are thinking. Talk to an adult who can either teach you how to get control of your thoughts or help you find someone who can help.

Pictured above is a piece of artwork designed to help you or those around you dealing with cognitive changes from trauma