Parenting after Traumatic Events: Ways to Support Children
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to know that children’s behaviors and emotions can become dysregulated, where they demonstrate more aggressive or withdrawn behaviors such as sadness or anger, and even “numbing” or little emotion as a way of coping with trauma.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.