The Role of VR in Tackling Child Trauma

Child trauma occurs more than a lot of people think. According to CDC research, in the US, at least 1 in 7 children have experienced child abuse and/or neglect in 2021. 2% of all children experienced sexual assault or sexual abuse during the past year. As did 11% of girls aged 14 to 17. 1 in 4 children was the victim of robbery, vandalism or theft in the previous year. These are not all the events that are considered child trauma. Other traumatic events are:

  • Psychological, physical, or sexual abuse
  • Community or school violence
  • Witnessing or experiencing domestic violence
  • National disasters or terrorism
  • Commercial sexual exploitation
  • Sudden or violent loss of a loved one
  • Refugee or war experiences
  • Military family-related stressors (e.g., deployment, parental loss or injury)
  • Physical or sexual assault
  • Neglect
  • Serious accidents or life-threatening illness


Child trauma has serious adverse effects and can lead to depression, anxiety, alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide attempts, and heart and liver diseases among other problems. It also almost always leads to immediate distress. It is, therefore, vital for health professionals and teachers to be able to recognize the signs of traumatic stress as soon as possible and tackle it in the best way they can.

With the sheer volume of time children spend at school, training teachers to recognise trauma at school can be life-changing. Skilled teachers will be able to not just recognise trauma, but also support kids who experience trauma. And vice versa, without trauma-informed training, teachers might not recognise child trauma in time, respond inappropriately, and unknowingly cause another trauma.

In this article, we’ll explore the ways Virtual Reality (VR) technology can help to recognise childhood trauma and in some cases can help with its consequences for children. Virtual Reality (VR) is a data visualisation solution ― a computer-generated environment with scenes and objects that appear to be real, making the user feel they are immersed in their surroundings. This is created with the help of a VR headset or helmet. VR allows the user to become one of the characters, experience what they would experience and feel like they would feel. It allows for better understanding, as well as for learning new skills and coping mechanisms.


VR: Detecting and understanding childhood trauma

Virtual Reality technology makes it possible for one person to walk in the shoes of someone else, and to have the experience they would not have otherwise. In this context, one such experience would be for a person to be put in the role of an abuse victim.

For example, in Hampshire County, UK, VR training provided by Entser, the VR tech solution, helped caregivers better understand traumatized children. Caregivers were given an opportunity to experience different scenarios from the perspective of an abused child. The focus of the program was on child abuse, domestic violence, mental illness and substance abuse. The project was very well received by the local authorities and aims to train more staff in understanding childhood trauma.

Similarly, Entser has partnered with Flourish Fostering ― a niche therapeutic provider of care for children and young people who cannot live with their own families. Flourish Fostering uses VR to enhance how they support their Foster Parents and practitioners, training them to detect child abuse and practice helping children in the best way possible.

At the same time, research shows that VR training helps health professionals, teachers, and social workers offer better help. Analysis of a pilot involving 30 councils and care organisations that summed up 500 participants showed that:

  • 91% believe VR has the power to change the perspective of carers and adopters around the effects of trauma.
  • 84% admitted virtual reality has helped them make decisions more quickly 72% decided to alter their behavior in relation to the ones affected by trauma
  • 60% (of social workers) said VR had boosted their understanding of the children’s experiences and feelings
  • 44% of all those taking part believe that using virtual reality training can help prevent placement breakdown
  • 60% decided that VR could help attract more adopters and foster carers

Another 3-year research project from the University of Birmingham showed that data visualisation solutions can be successfully used for training doctors to look out for hard-to-detect signs of child abuse. 64 doctors with different levels of experience participated in the study. The VR lead of the work, Dr Sylvia Xueni Pan of Goldsmiths, pointed out that with the VR-led training the researchers have absolute control over our virtual characters. The medical lead of the work, Dr Caroline Fertleman from UCL added: “For ethical reasons, it would be impossible to recreate this kind of sensitive scenario using child actors. What we have shown, for the first time, is that we can create virtual reality characters of abused children and their parents that doctors believe in and interact with in a realistic way enabling them to learn how to spot the subtle warning signs of abuse.”


VR: Tackling child trauma

Virtual reality technology doesn’t only help third parties such as teachers, caregivers, doctors, and others detect child trauma and improve their behavior. It also helps children and adolescents manage their trauma, as well as fear, anxiety, and pain. For example, Shriners Children’s hospitals in Canada have conducted studies where they explored the use of VR in clinical settings since 2019. VR was found to help children manage procedural pain and anxiety.

VR has also been used to tackle social anxiety in children. Social anxiety affects around 10% of children and young people. The disorder is a long-lasting and overwhelming fear of social situations that can cause distress, fear, avoidance of social activities, poor school attendance and problems with concentration, sleep and diet. Children suffering from social anxiety disorder can have uncontrollable outbursts, negative thoughts and physical symptoms that lead to depression. It’s generally believed that the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the prevalence of social anxiety in children, which brought the need for early interventions. At the moment, NHS Foundation in the UK is testing VR that is aimed to help children with social anxiety. VR scenarios include everyday environments such as homes, neighbourhoods and shops. These environments are designed with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) in mind to provide challenging features to teach coping mechanisms.

Another example is Kids Trauma Relief program that sells VR technology to help kids relieve stress and trauma from past events and current stressful situations. VR scenarios help process painful and traumatic memories, such as stressful situations, diseases, abuse, unhealthy relationships, bullying, and other traumatic life experiences.

Finally, some organizations, such as for example The Children’s Center for Psychiatry, Psychology, & Related Services in the US offer full-scale Virtual Reality Therapy. Virtual Reality Therapy treatment is developed to let children challenge their fears in a safe, realistic environment, and in a way that gives them control. VR therapy can be used for children of different ages and altered as the child gets older. Basically, the scenarios reflect a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and in-vivo exposure therapy but are done in a more creative and gamified way. During therapy, children learn coping skills first and then practice them with adults and other kids using an avatar.



VR is not a new technology, however, it’s only recently been applied to tackling child trauma. The research and implementation are still ongoing, but it is quite clear that VR technology is transforming the way we deliver healthcare to children and young people. Virtual reality offers the opportunity that no other therapy has offered so far: it provides freedom, control, and the comfort of one’s own home which means potentially less hospital time. It speaks to children on their level and has the potential to make therapy attractive and exciting for children as opposed to something they are forced to do. For adults, be that healthcare professionals, teachers, caregivers, or any other interested party, VR gives an opportunity to walk in the shoes of the children they care about. This has already gathered enough evidence for us to be sure that adults become much better at detecting and dealing with child trauma after VR training. Future research will surely discover more ways we can utilise VR and make it a common way of dealing with various psychological issues of children and adults alike.

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