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 it. You might also feel angry, anxious or overwhelmed. These are natural reactions, because you feel responsible for keeping your child safe. Unfortunately this 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 3-year-old
Coping 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.
You’re more likely to be able to cope in a calm and positive way if you look after yourself, focus on family life and seek support. When you’re coping well, your child is more likely to cope well too.
If you can create a sense of family togetherness and help your child work through feelings, you’ll be providing a supportive environment as your family recovers.
Looking after yourself: tips
If you look after yourself, you’ll be better placed to help your child cope:
- Try muscle relaxation exercises or breathing exercises. These can help if you’re feeling worried or jumpy or you’re having trouble sleeping.
- Do exercise. For example, go for a brisk walk or do a quick workout. This can help you think and feel better.
- Practise self-compassion. Remind yourself that you’re doing the best you can in a difficult situation.
- Make time for something you enjoy. Even if it’s 15 minutes to go for a run, knit, listen to your favourite music or read a book, it’s still time for you.
- Be aware that reminders of the traumatic event might upset you. 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.
- Avoid smoking, limit alcohol and other drugs, and avoid addictive activities like gambling. It might seem that these things can help you cope. But they can create problems with health, relationships and finances, which make recovering after a traumatic event even harder.
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 you and your child feel 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.
Seeking support: tips
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 or angry about what happened. Or you might feel annoyed with other people. Talking can help you see things realistically and move 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.
- Keep in touch with family, friends and people in 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.
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 distanced from the people around you
- not being able to care for your child or offer the emotional support your child needs
- finding it hard to get the event out of your mind
- feeling overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety, anger, distress, guilt or self-blame
- experiencing persistent changes to your health including headaches, weight loss and problems with sleep.
Talk with your GP if you have any of these signs or you feel you need support. It’s important to get help if you need it. Also, the sooner 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 quickly 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 Domestic Family and Sexual Violence Counselling Service on 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732).