Traumatic events: how children and teenagers might react
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 and teenagers react in various ways to traumatic events. Some children react more strongly than others, even to the same event. Some children react straight away, whereas others react weeks or months after the event.
You might see signs of children’s feelings and reactions in their behaviour, emotions or relationships. Children can react in physical ways too.
Children and teenagers might:
- behave aggressively or disobey rules
- resist being separated from you
- not be able to do things they could do before, like using the toilet, getting dressed or organising homework
- have problems going to bed, settling to sleep or staying asleep
- seem to have a lot of energy
- be less playful or creative
- find it hard to concentrate and remember things at school and during other activities.
Children and teenagers might feel confused, worried, hesitant, anxious, sad, angry, irritable, guilty or ashamed.
Children and teenagers might:
- seem quiet or withdrawn
- avoid their friends and other people
- be argumentative, self-centred, bossy or bullying.
Children and teenagers might have headaches, stomach aches or loss of appetite.
If your child has experienced a traumatic event, they’ll need your support immediately after the traumatic event and in the days and weeks afterwards. Although some children and teenagers might be very upset after a traumatic event, most children cope and recover over time.
Supporting children and teenagers after traumatic events
For children of all ages, it helps to talk, follow familiar routines and be careful about reminders of the event.
Talking and listening
Talking about the event with your child helps you understand how your child has experienced the traumatic event and how they’re feeling about it.
It’s always best if you make plenty of time to talk. You can also look out for moments when your child wants to talk about the event. This sends the message that listening and helping your child feel better is important to you. Your child will probably have questions too. These questions give you the chance to check whether your child understands what’s going on. You can also correct any misinformation or misunderstandings.
You can use these conversations as a chance to reassure your child. For example, ‘Yes, the school is still open. You can go to school and see your friends. All your friends are OK’.
Family routines help children feel safe and secure. That’s why they’re important after traumatic events and experiences.
Here are ways to use routines to support your child:
- Focus on regular healthy snacks and meals, time for exercise or play outside, and a good night’s sleep. This will help to keep your child’s mind and body healthy as they settle down.
- Encourage your child to go to child care, playgroup, kindergarten or school, if this is possible. Let your child’s carers or teachers know what has happened to help them to support and care for your child.
- When you feel your child is ready, encourage your child to get back into the things they previously enjoyed, like playing sport or visiting friends. Also look for new positive activities that your child might enjoy.
Handling reminders of the traumatic event
Your child might be frightened by reminders of the event and their experiences. Reminders include things like smoke, smells, noise, running water, crowds and so on.
You can explain what’s happening and let your child know that it’s OK to feel afraid. Reassure your child that they’re safe now, if they are. For example, ‘You’re scared of the smoke because you think it’s coming from a bushfire. It’s smoke from the neighbour’s barbecue. You’re safe’.
It can also help to talk with older children and teenagers about how reminders of the event or its anniversary might make them feel and how they can cope. For example, ‘Last Christmas was a tough time for our family. How are you feeling this year? What can we do to make sure it’s fun?’
Toddlers and preschoolers: recovery after traumatic events
Toddlers and preschoolers are developing skills to express their feelings with words. They often use a mixture of play, behaviour and words to express their feelings. Toddlers and preschoolers might find it hard to separate from parents or might seem to have forgotten how to do things like use the toilet.
There are many ways you can help your young child start feeling better:
- Help your child to name their feelings when you notice them. For example, ‘You look like you’re feeling sad. Tell me about it. It’s OK to feel sad’. When your child is settled, help them to move on to a fun game, story or song.
- If your child is very quiet and withdrawn, use play to explore emotions. For example, ‘Is Teddy sad? Do you think a hug might help Teddy?’
- If your child is having trouble separating from you, they might be worried about you or themselves. Or they might sense that you’re worried about being separated from them. Reassure your child that you’re both safe and the danger has passed. You can also ask your child’s carers or teachers for help with managing separation.
- If your child seems to have ‘forgotten’ how to do things like talking or using the toilet, remember that this is a natural response in these circumstances. Once your child feels settled, they’ll regain these skills.
- If habits like thumb-sucking or wetting the bed have come back, remember that this is also a natural response. The habits will usually go away as your child recovers.
School-age children and pre-teens: recovery after traumatic events
Children of this age might spend a lot of time thinking about their safety, the safety of others and the future. They might also feel responsible for the event or how the event has affected other people.
Here are ways you can help your child understand and cope with their feelings and reactions to the event:
- If your child doesn’t want to separate from you, reassure them that you’re all safe. You can ask your child’s teachers for help to manage separation.
- If your child behaves in challenging ways, help them understand why they’re acting this way and find other ways to express feelings. For example, ‘You slammed that door very hard. I think you’re feeling angry. How about we kick the footy to get some of that anger out?’
- If your child has headaches or stomach aches, help your child to care for themselves – for example, by having a glass of water and a rest. If any physical problems are intense or long lasting, talk to your child’s GP.
- If your child blames themselves for what happened, talk through the facts with them. This can help them understand what happened and feel reassured that they weren’t responsible and nobody blames them.
- Encourage your child to think about all the good things they and other people did to stay safe. This will help them to feel strong and empowered. For example, ‘That car accident was very upsetting to see. You did well to call 000’.
- If your child keeps reliving the event through play or drawing, gently guide their games or drawing towards other things. For example, ‘You’re drawing a lot of pictures of our house being flooded. Many kids do that after a flood. Let’s draw a picture of a new house that’s protected from floods. What would that look like?’
- Help your school-age child cope with any media coverage by talking with them about the importance of limiting what they hear or see. You can explain that it’s not helpful to keep watching distressing images. Also make sure your child gets accurate, age-appropriate information, plus opportunities to talk about it.
Teenagers: recovery after traumatic events
After a traumatic event, teenagers might have similar feelings and reactions to those of younger children. Teenagers might also feel anxious or depressed or get involved in risky behaviour like drinking. And they might feel isolated from their peers and like they don’t fit in.
Here are ideas for supporting your child during this time:
- If your child is blaming themselves for what happened, let your child know that it’s natural to feel like this. Try to understand why your child thinks this way. Talk through the facts with them so they can understand what happened and feel reassured that they weren’t responsible and nobody blames them.
- If you think your child is hiding their feelings, try to understand why and encourage your child to express them. Let your child know that the feelings will be easier to handle over time. For example, ‘I think most people feel down at the moment. I know I do. But it’s OK to feel this way. These feelings will settle in time’.
- Encourage your child to talk with their friends if you feel this is healthy for both your child and their friends. Sometimes your child might prefer to talk with friends than with you, which is OK.
- If your child is behaving disrespectfully or ignoring family rules, ask them why they’re acting this way. For example, ‘I think you’re shouting at me because you’re angry. What do you think? Let’s find a better way to express it. How about going for a run to get some of that anger out?’
- If your child is having problems at school, talk with your child and their teachers about what has happened. Ask the school whether your child could see a school psychologist or counsellor, have more time to finish assignments or reduce their study load.
- If your child is taking dangerous risks like drinking or taking drugs, talk to your family GP. It might also help to ask a relative or trusted family friend to talk with your child.
- If your child wants to rush into life decisions like leaving school, let your child know that it’s best to leave the big decisions until life has calmed down.
- Help your teenage child cope with any media coverage by talking with them about the coverage. This is especially important if they’re getting a lot of information from social media. You can explain that seeing constant coverage of the traumatic event might make them feel stressed or upset.
Trouble coping after a traumatic event
Recovery can take time, but over time most children cope and recover. And you can get support for recovery, so that you and your child don’t have to do it alone.
If the traumatic event happened in your area – for example, a flood or a bushfire – child care centres, schools and local councils often offer extra support.
If you have any concerns about how your child is coping, talk with your child’s GP about seeing a psychologist, counsellor or other specialist support service.
It’s also good to check in with teachers and other adults in contact with your child to make sure your child is getting the understanding and support they need.
It’s important to look after yourself after trauma. This is good for your recovery and also for your child’s. If you’re having trouble coping, it’s important to seek help from your GP, another professional or a trusted friend. Call Lifeline on 131 114 (24 hours, 7 days) or contact a parenting helpline.