How traumatic events affect children and teenagers
Traumatic events are sudden, unexpected and shocking experiences that make children feel scared, distressed or overwhelmed. These events might include bushfires, car accidents, or the sight of someone who’s badly hurt.
Children can react in various ways to these experiences. The way they react depends on things like:
- how old they are
- whether they’ve had traumatic experiences in the past
- how they’ve reacted to past traumatic experiences
- what kind of support they get from family, friends and school, and when they get it.
How children experience and understand an event also affects the distress they feel during and after it and how they recover. For example, 2 children might go through the same bushfire. If one child thinks they’re going to die, they might experience the event as more traumatic than the other child.
Personality and temperament influence children’s reactions too.
Although some children might be very upset following a traumatic event, over time most children cope and recover.
First response for children and teenagers who’ve been in traumatic events
Checking your child’s physical wellbeing
- Check for signs of shock. If your child has pale or clammy skin, a weak or rapid pulse or dizziness, or if they can’t respond to you, this is shock. Shock is caused by injury or sudden fright.
- If your child has signs of shock and is injured, go to your nearest hospital or call an ambulance on 000.
- If your child has signs of shock but isn’t injured, comfort your child and reassure them that they’re safe. Shock caused by a sudden fright doesn’t need immediate medical treatment. But seek medical attention if the shock doesn’t go away.
- Keep your child warm and dry.
- Offer food and drink at usual times. It’s OK if your child doesn’t want much to eat or drink, but make sure they stay hydrated. It’s natural for children to have smaller appetites when they’re upset.
Helping your child feel safe
- Spend time with your child. If you can’t be with them, make sure they’re with someone else who makes them feel safe.
- Show your child affection in ways they like – for example, a hug, a pat on the shoulder or a high five.
- Let your child know that you and other people are there to look after them.
- If your child wants to talk, listen patiently. Gently answer your child’s questions as best you can, but be honest. For example, you could say ‘I don't know what has happened to our house. But you and I are OK’.
- Find a safe and secure space for yourself and your child, away from the event and reminders of it, if possible. For young children, a supervised area to play games, draw and read might help when they’re ready. For older children and teenagers, it could be an area where they can listen to music or just hang out.
- Give older children and teenagers some time and space to talk with their friends if they need to – for example, online or on the phone.
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.
- Help your child understand other people’s distress. 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 with looking after pets or younger brothers or sisters. Caring for others in meaningful ways can help children stay calm, feel they’re contributing and learn how to look after themselves.
Deciding what your child needs to know
- Be honest about the wellbeing of others. If a family member or friend is injured, has died or is missing, talk about this tough topic with your young child or have this difficult conversation with your teenage child.
- Try to explain the event in a way that gives your child the truth without scaring them. 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 them to ask questions. If you don’t know the answer to a question, it’s OK to say so. Tell your child that you’ll try to find more information.
Handling media coverage of traumatic events and disaster news
- Let your child know that you’ll tell them if there’s anything they need to know.
- Help your toddler or preschooler cope with disaster news by limiting what they see and hear in the media. Make time to listen and explain anything they’ve seen or heard in ways they can understand.
- Help your school-age child cope with disaster news by giving them accurate, age-appropriate information, plus opportunities to talk.
- Help your teenage child cope with disaster news by talking with them about what they’re seeing in the media, and also about where they’re getting their information from. You can explain that seeing a lot of coverage of the event might make them feel stressed or upset.
Getting support after traumatic events
You and your child will probably feel stressed after a traumatic event – for example, you might think about it a lot. You’ll probably feel better with time. You can read more about supporting children in the days and weeks after a traumatic event and looking after yourself after a traumatic event.
Sometimes you or your child might need extra support to feel better. If you think you or your child need support, talk to your GP or child and family health nurse about seeing a psychologist, counsellor or other specialist support service. You can also contact parenting helplines.
The following organisations can give you free advice and support:
- Beyond Blue – phone 1300 224 636, 24 hours, 7 days.
- Kids Helpline – phone 1800 551 800, 24 hours, 7 days.
- Lifeline Australia – phone 131 114, 24 hours, 7 days.
- MensLine Australia – phone 1300 789 978, 24 hours, 7 days.
- 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.
It’s understandable 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 them 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 talk as much as you need to.