Most children experience stressful things as they grow up – divorce, illness or even the death of someone they know. These things can be difficult, but they’re not usually traumatic. A trauma is a sudden, unexpected and shocking event.
How children might react to traumatic events
If your child experiences a traumatic event, he might feel frightened or distressed.
Children’s reactions to traumatic events depend on a few things – how old they are, whether they’ve been through a traumatic event before, and what kind of support they get from family, friends and school.
How children interpret an event also affects how much trauma they feel. For example, a car accident will feel more traumatic if a child thought she was going to die. Personality and temperament can play a role too.
This is why two children who go through the same traumatic event – for example, a bushfire – might react differently.
Although some children might be very upset following a traumatic event, over time most children cope and recover.
Spotting the signs of trauma
If your child has been through a traumatic event, he might:
- feel confused or worried, or blame himself for what happened
- be sad, angry, irritable, guilty or ashamed
- act out, disobey rules, cling to you or avoid other people
- suddenly not be able to do the things he could do before the traumatic event – for example, use the toilet or get himself dressed
- show physical signs – for example, have headaches or stomach aches or startle easily
- have problems sleeping or concentrating.
These kinds of symptoms don’t always happen straight after the trauma. Sometimes they can develop some time later.
If your child has pale or clammy skin, a weak or rapid pulse or dizziness, or if she can’t respond to you, this is shock. Shock is caused by injury or sudden fright. If you suspect your child is injured, go to your nearest hospital or call an ambulance on 000. Shock caused by a sudden fright doesn’t need immediate medical treatment. Comfort your child and reassure her that she’s safe. Seek medical attention if the shock doesn’t go away.
First response for children who’ve been in traumatic events
There are some things that you can do straight away to help your child after a traumatic event.
Checking your child’s physical wellbeing
- Check for signs of illness, injury or shock and seek medical attention if needed.
- Keep your child warm and offer food and drink at the usual snack and meal times. If he doesn’t want much to eat or drink at first, that’s OK. It’s normal for children to have smaller appetites after a traumatic event.
Helping your child feel safe
- Find a safe and secure space for your child, away from reminders of the event. For young children, this could be a supervised area to play games, draw and read. For older children and teenagers, this could be an area where they can listen to music, talk with friends and do art activities.
- Spend time with your child, and listen if she wants to talk. Give her lots of hugs, and reassure her that you and other people are there for her.
Staying calm and coping
- Try to show your child calm and positive ways to cope. Talk about how you feel or felt. For example, ‘Yes, I was really scared when that car crashed into us, but we’re safe now’. If you can stay calm, it’ll help your child to feel calm too.
- Encourage your child to spend time with adults and children who are calm. If your child sees someone who’s very upset, let him know why. For example, ‘That man is really upset so he can’t calm down just yet. Someone is going to talk to him and help him to calm down’.
- Give your young child a toy, like a special teddy bear or doll, to ‘look after’. Encourage older children to help look after pets or younger brothers or sisters. Caring for others can help children stay calm and learn how to look after themselves.
Deciding what your child needs to know
- Keep your child away from scary news stories about the traumatic event. Let your child know that you’ll tell her if there’s anything she needs to know. Explain to older children that watching news about the traumatic event might make them feel stressed or upset.
- Be honest about the wellbeing of others. If a family member or friend is injured, has died or is missing, talk with your child about this tough topic. Try to explain in a way that gives your child the truth without scaring him. For example, ‘Aunty Lena has gone to hospital in the ambulance. The paramedics are using special equipment to help her breathe right now’.
- Check that your child understands what has happened and encourage her to ask questions.
It’s normal and OK if you’re finding it hard to stay calm, or you feel you need to talk about the trauma a lot. But it might be best for your child if you can protect him from some of your distress. Try asking a trusted friend to be a supportive listener for you. Pick a time when your child is being supervised by someone else, so you can let off steam.
Getting support after traumatic events
You and your children will probably feel stressed after a traumatic event – for example, you might think about it a lot. This is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation, and you’ll probably feel better with time.
But sometimes you or your child might need extra support to feel better. If you think you or your child needs support, talk to your GP about seeing a psychologist, counsellor or other specialist support service. You can also contact parenting hotlines.
Read more in our article on supporting your child in the days and weeks after a traumatic event.
The following organisations can give you free advice and support.
Lifeline Australia provides a free, confidential and anonymous 24-hour telephone counselling service for adults needing emotional support. The Lifeline Australia website also has information and resources about providing care in times of crisis. Phone 131 114.
Beyond Blue works to increase community awareness of depression, anxiety and substance misuse disorders. The website has an extensive collection of resources. Beyond Blue’s information line can refer you to relevant services. Phone 1300 224 636.
MensLine provides a free, professional, confidential and anonymous 24-hour telephone counselling service for men who need emotional support or are in crisis. It also offers a call-back service for continued support. The website has information and resources about looking after yourself and others in times of crisis. Phone 1300 789 978.
Trauma & Grief Network
This network has information to help people understand and respond to the needs of children and families experiencing trauma, loss or grief.
Kids Helpline provides free, private and confidential telephone and online counselling for young people aged 5-25 years. Phone 1800 551 800, 24 hours, 7 days.
Other parents can be a great source of support and ideas. Connect with other parents and families in our online forums