By Raising Children Network
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Mother listening to child on beach
 
In the days and weeks after a traumatic event, you can support your child’s recovery by staying calm and positive and listening to your child’s feelings. Over time, most children cope. But if you or your child have trouble coping, seek some professional support.

You and your child in the weeks and months after a traumatic event

When children have been through trauma, they need a safe, calm place to recover and work through their feelings.

After the first response to trauma, a regular routine of meals and chores can help your family get back a sense of everyday life. Going to child care, playgroup, kindergarten or school as usual can help children understand that their safe places and familiar people are still there for them.

Routines also give you time to organise things for your family and to cope with your feelings.

If the traumatic event happened in your area – for example, a flood or a bushfire – child care centres, schools or local councils often offer extra support. You can find parenting resources in your part of Australia by using My Neighbourhood.

If the traumatic event happened to your family, let your child’s carers or teachers know what has happened. This will help them support and care for your child.

Reminders of the traumatic event

Your child might be frightened by reminders of the event, such as smoke after a bushfire or pictures on TV news.

Explain what’s happening and let him know that it’s OK to be afraid. Reassure him that he’s safe now. For example, ‘You’re scared of the smoke because you think it’s coming from a bushfire. It’s smoke from the neighbour’s BBQ. You’re safe’.

It’s a good idea to limit what your child sees and hears in the media about the event while she learns how to handle her feelings.

For older children and teenagers, it can help to talk with them about how reminders of the event – including its anniversary – might make them feel and how they can cope. For example, ‘When you see images of the cyclone on the internet, they might make you feel scared or anxious. This happens to lots of people. It can help to say to yourself that you’re safe and there’s no cyclone’.

Life can be busy following a traumatic event. But it’s important for you to relax and look after yourself. Daily relaxation exercises can help you sleep better, improve your concentration, and give you more energy to care for your child. Relaxation exercises can also help your child learn to calm himself.

Tips for supporting your child

It can help to focus on the basics – for example, offering your child regular healthy snacks and meals, making time to exercise or play outside, and encouraging a good night’s sleep. This will help to keep your child’s mind and body healthy as she settles down.

Your child is learning to deal with strong feelings. He’ll need your love and understanding to work through them.

When some children are dealing with strong feelings, their behaviour can be challenging. You might see more temper tantrums, yelling or breaking family rules. Other children might become very quiet and withdrawn. The traumatic event can also affect children’s sleep – for example, preschoolers and school-age children might have nightmares.

Toddlers, preschoolers and school-age children might have trouble separating from you – for example, to go to child care, preschool or school.  They might worry that something will happen to you while you’re gone. Reassure your child that you’re safe and that the danger has passed. You can also ask your child’s carers or teachers for help with managing the separation. 

After our house burned down, my son became increasingly physical with emotional outbursts becoming more and more common when things didn’t turn out as he expected. I spent more time with him to build up his self-esteem and make him feel secure. Slowly his confidence came back.
– Miriam, mother of a three-year-old

Toddlers and preschoolers

  • If your child is upset, you can help her to name her feelings. For example, ‘Something bad happened, so you feel sad. It’s OK to feel sad’. As your child calms down, try to distract her with a fun game, story or song.
  • If your child is very quiet and withdrawn, you can help him to talk about his feelings by reminding him about the words for different feelings. For example, ‘I felt scared when the storm came’.
  • If your child is having trouble going to bed at night or staying asleep, or is calling out and getting out of bed, comfort your child and put her back to bed when she’s calm. A regular bedtime routine can help.
  • Your child might ‘forget’ how to do some of the things he has learned – for example, using the toilet or talking. This is normal. Once your child feels safe, he’ll be able to do these things again.
  • Some of your child’s old habits might come back – for example, thumb-sucking, wetting the bed or feeling separation anxiety. This is normal. The habits will usually go away when your child feels safe again.

School-age and pre-teenage children

  • If your child slams the door or loses her temper, let her know why she’s acting this way. For example, ‘You slammed that door really hard. I’m guessing you’re feeling angry. How about we kick the footy to get some of that anger out?’ Our article on encouraging good behaviour has more tips.
  • If your child has headaches or stomach aches, let him know that this is normal after a traumatic event. You can also teach him to care for himself – for example, by having a glass of water and a rest. If the problem doesn’t go away, it’s a good idea to check with your child’s doctor just in case.
  • If your child is blaming herself for what happened and feeling guilty or ashamed, let her know that it’s normal to feel like this. You can also say that the event wasn’t caused by anything she said or did.
  • Talk with your child about what caused the event and what’s going to happen next. For example, ‘The fire burned our house down. While it’s being rebuilt, we’ll live with Aunty Lisa and Uncle Dave. You’ll still be able to go to school and see your friends’.
  • Give your child the chance to ask you questions and share his worries. Try to answer his questions, and check that he’s understood what you’ve said. You might find problem-solving is a useful way to help your child work through worries.
  • If your child keeps reliving the event when playing or drawing, let her know that thinking about the event is normal. But then gently guide her game, drawing or story away from the event. For example, ‘You’re drawing lots of pictures of our house being flooded. Lots of kids do that after a flood. Let’s draw a picture of a new house that’s protected from floods. What would that look like?’
  • If your child is having sleep problems, you can manage and overcome many of them with some common behaviour strategies.

Teenagers

  • If your child is blaming himself for what happened, let him know that it’s normal to feel like this but that the event wasn’t caused by anything he did or didn’t say or do.
  • If you think your child might be hiding her feelings, encourage her to express them. Let her know that they’ll be easier to handle over time. For example, ‘I think most people are feeling pretty down at the moment. I know I am. But it’s OK to feel that way. These feelings will pass in time, so we’ll just have to be patient’. She might also like to check on her friends to see how they’re going.
  • If your child is losing his temper or ignoring family rules, let him know why he’s acting this way. For example, ‘You‘re cross with me because you’re really angry. How about we go for a run to get some of that anger out?’ Our article on disrespectful teenage behaviour has more ideas to help the two of you get through this behaviour.
  • If your child is having problems at school, talk with her and her teachers about what has happened. You can ask the school about support – for example, from a school psychologist or counsellor – or about giving your child more time to finish assignments or reducing your child’s study load.
  • If your child starts taking dangerous risks – for example, drinking or taking drugs – you can help by talking to your family GP. It might also help to ask a relative or trusted family friend to talk with your child about risk-taking.
  • If your child wants to rush into life decisions – for example, leaving school – you can help by letting him know that it’s best to leave the big decisions until life has calmed down.
Other parents can be a great source of support and ideas. Connect with other parents and families in our online forums.

Trouble coping after a traumatic event

Sometimes children have a lot of trouble coping after a traumatic event. Talk with your child’s doctor if you have any concerns about how your child is coping.

Recovering after a traumatic event takes time, and you don’t have to do it alone. There are services that can support you and your child.

Supporting your child after a traumatic event can be really tough. As your child’s support person it’s a good idea to give yourself time to cope and look after yourself. If you’re having trouble coping it’s important to seek help from your doctor or a trusted friend. Call Lifeline on 131 114 (24 hours, 7 days) or contact a parenting hotline.
 
 
 
  • Last updated or reviewed 28-05-2015
  • Acknowledgements This article was developed in collaboration with Dr Briony Towers, Centre for Risk and Community Safety, RMIT.