Your feelings after a traumatic event
You and your child might have experienced a traumatic event together – for example, a serious car accident, a bushfire or flood, or the death of a family member or friend. Or the trauma might be something that happened only to you, or only to your child.
Even if you didn’t go through the traumatic event with your child, you might still have strong feelings and reactions afterwards.
For example, you might feel guilty that you couldn’t stop the event or that you weren’t with your child during the event. You might also feel angry, anxious or overwhelmed. This is a natural reaction, because you feel responsible for keeping your child safe. Unfortunately it isn’t always possible.
I was overwhelmed because I was finding it very hard to hold it together. I also blamed myself. I felt powerless and withdrew from social situations at times when things seemed the most difficult, as my way of coping.
– Miriam, mother of a three-year-old
Coping well after trauma
After a traumatic event it can feel like your life has been turned upside down. There might be new demands on your time, like medical appointments or insurance claims, as well as the demands of daily life. Many of your usual routines might be upset or more difficult to manage.
It’s worth focusing some energy on trying to cope in a calm and positive way by looking after yourself, managing family life and seeking support. When you’re coping well, your child is more likely to cope well too.
If you can create a sense of family togetherness, talk openly about the event and help your child work through feelings, you’ll be providing a supportive environment as your family recovers.
Looking after you: tips
If you look after yourself, you’ll be better placed to help your child cope:
- Muscle relaxation exercises, breathing exercises or a brisk walk or quick workout in the morning can help if you’re feeling worried or jumpy, or you’re having trouble sleeping. Exercise helps you think and feel better.
- Make time for something you enjoy. Even if it’s 15 minutes to go for a run or read a book, it’s still time for you.
- Try to limit gambling, and alcohol and other drugs. To deal with strong feelings, people sometimes turn to these things. But gambling and drugs can create problems with health, relationships and finances that make recovering after a traumatic event even harder.
- Be aware that reminders of the traumatic event might upset you. This is natural. If you notice that you’re getting anxious, it can help to say to yourself, ‘I’m upset because I’m being reminded of the event, but it’s different now. There’s no danger, and I’m safe’. If you’re having nightmares or flashbacks, see your GP.
Managing family life: tips
It’s a good idea to take things as easy as possible:
- Keep in mind that you might not be able to do everything you normally do. Work out which of your daily tasks are the most important and focus on those. You can also try breaking larger tasks into smaller steps.
- Try to maintain regular routines because this will help your child feel more secure. It might also help you feel more on top of things. If you can’t use your usual routines, you might need to create some new routines.
- Avoid making any major decisions – for example, moving to another town – after the traumatic event. The trauma might have changed your view of the world, so it’s good to leave big decisions until life has settled down a bit. Then you know your decisions are sound.
Reaching out for support: tips
You don’t have to cope alone. When you seek support, it’s good for you and good for your family:
- Share your feelings with trusted friends or family members. You might feel responsible for what happened or very angry, which is natural. Talking through feelings can help you be realistic about what you could have done. It’s also normal to feel annoyed with each other at times, but try talking and then moving on. For example, ‘We’ve been really cranky with each other, but considering what we’ve been through, I think we’re doing pretty well’.
- Ask for help from family, friends and others. Accept help when it’s offered. Your GP is a good person to ask about support services that can help you.
- Keep in touch with others including your family, your friends and your community. Parents who visit or phone family and friends and stay involved in their communities tend to cope better after a traumatic event than those who don’t.
After the bushfire, I felt really guilty and angry with myself. We didn’t leave early enough and got stuck here with the kids. But after talking to my neighbours and friends, I realised that everyone was going through similar emotions, and that really helped. And taking time out for myself really helped too. I started going to the exercise classes at the community centre. I said no at first because there was so much to take care of, but it actually gave me more energy to cope with everything that needed to be done.
– Bushfire survivor and parent
Signs that you’re not coping after trauma
Over time most people cope after a traumatic event, but a few people might have trouble coping.
Some of the signs that you might need help to cope after a trauma are:
- feeling anxious, angry, overwhelmed, upset, guilty and ashamed or blaming yourself for over a month after the event
- experiencing changes to your health including headaches, weight loss and problems with sleep
- finding it hard to get the event out of your mind
- feeling ‘cut off’ from the people around you
- not being able to care for your child or offer the emotional support your child needs.
Talk with your GP if you have any of these signs, or if you feel you need support. Recovery after a traumatic event is different for everyone, so it’s important to get help if you need it. Also, the earlier you get help, the faster you’re likely to recover.
Services and support after trauma
If you feel that you or your family aren’t coping, it’s important to seek help as soon as you can.
Getting support early will help you and your child as you recover. You might like to call a parenting helpline, talk with your GP or contact a mental health service for advice and referrals to local services.
You can also find help and support in our Services and support section.
If you’re experiencing family violence and you’re in immediate danger, call the police on 000. You can also call the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732).