By Raising Children Network
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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.

Helping your child straight after a traumatic event

If your child experiences a traumatic event, he might feel frightened or distressed.

A child’s reaction to a traumatic event depends on a few things – how old she is, whether she’s been through a traumatic event before, and what kind of support she gets from family, friends and school. Her personality and temperament can also play a role.

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.
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. It’s a common reaction, but it needs immediate medical attention. Go to your nearest hospital or call an ambulance on 000.

First response

There are some key things that you can do to help your child after a traumatic event:

  • Check for signs of illness, injury or shock and seek medical attention if needed.
  • Keep your child warm and offer her food and drink at the usual snack and meal times. If she doesn’t want much to eat or drink at first, that’s OK. It’s normal for her appetite to be smaller straight after a traumatic event.  
  • Find a safe and secure space for your child. 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. Try to find a space that is away from reminders of the event, if you can.
  • Spend time with your child, and listen if he wants to talk. Give lots of hugs, and reassure him that you’re there for him.
  • 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’. Children look to their parents to work out how to behave, so if you’re scared they can think they’re still in danger. If you find that you can’t talk calmly about the event, or you’re talking about it too much, ask a trusted friend to be a supportive listener.
  • Encourage your child to spend time with adults and children who are calm, such as family or family friends. If your child sees someone who’s very upset, let her 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, such as a special teddy bear or doll. Younger children might enjoy looking after their toy, pretending to feed it and put it to bed. You can 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.
  • Keep your child away from media as much as possible. News stories on TV, online or in the newspapers could be scary. Let your child know that you will tell her if there’s anything she needs to know. For older children, you can explain that it’s important to keep calm, safe and relaxed and that watching news about the event might make her 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. After you’ve explained what’s happened, check that your child understands and encourage him to ask questions.

Getting support

After a traumatic event, you or your child might need support. Talk to your doctor 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 
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 
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 Australia
Mensline provides a free, professional, confidential and anonymous 24-hour telephone counselling service for men needing emotional support or 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 
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.
  • Last updated or reviewed 18-12-2013
  • Acknowledgements This article was developed in collaboration with Dr Briony Towers, Centre for Risk and Community Safety, RMIT.