One of the most important messages for parents about traumatic experiences—such as car accidents, medical trauma, exposure to violence, disasters—that may impact them and their children is that while children of all ages can be impacted, most are resilient and able to cope and recover.
Dr. Ann Masten from the University of Minnesota wrote in the journal American Psychologist (2001) about resilience as “ordinary magic.” That is, given normal protective factors, most children will be able to cope, recover, and be fine after witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event.
Some children and adolescents may develop symptoms following a disaster, especially if they have experienced traumatic events earlier such as losses or other difficult situations. The symptoms related to trauma may appear as difficult behaviors or emotions shown at home or school. It is important for parents to know that children’s behaviors and emotions can become dysregulated, where they demonstrate more aggressive or withdrawn behaviors such as sadness or anger, and even “numbing” or little emotion as a way of coping with trauma.
Some of the “red flag” behaviors of concern when seen in children of different ages include:
- For children under 5 years of age: returning to earlier behaviors such as thumbsucking, bedwetting, fear of darkness, separation anxiety or excessive clinging
- For 6-11-year-olds: disruptive behaviors, extreme withdrawal, inability to pay attention, sleep problems and nightmares, school problems, psychosomatic complaints including stomachaches and headaches or changes in usual behaviors
- For 12-17-year-olds: sleep problems and nightmares, school problems including changes in performance and truancy, risk-taking behavior, problems with peers, changes in usual behaviors, psychosomatic complaints including stomachaches and headaches, depression or suicidal thoughts
Parents need to be able to recognize these “red flag” behaviors and identify when their child may be experiencing so much distress that he needs help. Parents may also need help in providing support to their child after traumatic events that may also traumatize the parents. Brief support and being able to talk to someone who can be more objective may be helpful to both parents and child after a traumatic event.
When they experience traumatic events, children can be protected most by support from their parents or trusted caregivers, being able to talk to them and have them listen, and if they are younger, being able to play freely. Younger children often play out what they have seen or experienced which, at times, may be difficult and upsetting for parents to observe but is important in helping the child recover from the event.
Returning to routines is also very important for children after they’ve experienced trauma, even if the routines are different from what they experienced before the traumatic event. If the children are older, then being able to go to school and be with friends will help in their recovery. Life needs to be predictable for children (and adults) and traumatic experiences disrupt that predictability. Reinstating routines help make life predictable again.
Guidelines for Parents to Help Their Child Cope with Trauma Include
1. Offer to listen to your child and help her, but don’t overwhelm her if she is not ready to talk. Don’t pressure your child to think or talk about what has happened beyond her willingness and readiness to do so. Children need answers to their questions that are age-appropriate and truthful, but it is not in their best interest to be flooded with more information than they ask for or need.
2. Talk about what has happened or is happening but in tolerable doses. It is wise to respect your child’s need to break off the discussion and to respect his wish to not talk further about the trauma for a while. He or you can ask to talk again at another time.
3. Do not underestimate a young child’s awareness or understanding of what has happened or may be happening. Answer your young child’s questions about injury or death truthfully, but in language she can understand without offering her more than is necessary for her to hear.
Different age groups have different needs. For example, very young children need to be protected from exposure to too much television or other media; they are likely to have either seen or heard too much already.
Children need to be helped not only with their anxiety and confusion, but also with their anger. They may react to the traumatic event with anger and need to learn ways to express their feelings in healthy ways. Here are a few age-appropriate, healthy ways to help children express their confusion or anger about a traumatic event:
- It is often helpful for young children to have the opportunity to draw pictures of what has happened, perhaps depending on the traumatic event, including rescue vehicles coming to aid. Children who are a little older may want to play out the event with toys.
- Older children may find it helpful to use heroic action figures for their play or toy soldiers or military equipment to show danger as well as rescue.
- School-age children may want to use these less verbal forms of expression but they also might be able to be more direct and verbal about their feelings and concerns; they are more likely to also talk to teachers, relatives, and other adults in addition to parents.
- Teenagers may find it helpful to talk as part of a small group of peers their own age rather than talk by themselves. After disasters, teenagers can play a major role in helping others in recovery work at school and in their community and also help younger children. It is important to recognize and support prosocial activities for teenagers, which can also decrease the likelihood of higher-risk behaviors.
As I shared with one parent whose young child was very upset after experiencing a traumatic event that would impact both of their lives for some time, “Life will return to normal, however, after trauma, it may be a ‘new normal.’”
Flipped car photo available from Shutterstock