You and your child in the weeks and months after a traumatic event
When children have been through trauma, they need a safe, calm place to recover and work through their feelings.
After the first response to trauma, a regular routine of meals, activities and chores can help your family get back a sense of everyday life. Going to child care, playgroup, kindergarten or school as usual can help children understand that their safe places and familiar people are still there for them.
Routines also give you time to organise things for your family and to cope with your feelings.
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 the traumatic event happened to your family, let your child’s carers or teachers know what has happened. This will help them support and care for your child.
Reminders of the traumatic event
Your child might be frightened by reminders of the event, like smoke after a bushfire or pictures on TV news.
You can explain what’s happening and let your child know that it’s OK to be afraid. Reassure him that he’s safe now. 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’s a good idea to limit what your child sees and hears in the media about the event while she learns how to handle her feelings.
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, ‘When you see images of the cyclone on the internet, they might make you feel scared or anxious. This happens to lots of people. It can help to say to yourself that you’re safe and there’s no cyclone here now’.
Supporting children of all ages after trauma
It can help to focus on the basics – for example, offering your child regular healthy snacks and meals, making time for her to exercise or play outside, and encouraging a good night’s sleep. This will help to keep your child’s mind and body healthy as she settles down.
It’s also important to talk with your child about the event – what caused it and what’s going to happen next. For example, ‘The fire burned our house down. While it’s being rebuilt, we’ll live with Aunty Lisa and Uncle Dave. You’ll still be able to go to school and see your friends’.
Your child is learning to deal with strong feelings. Some children might express strong feelings through challenging behaviour, whereas others might become quiet and withdrawn. Your child will need your love, understanding and patience, but family rules about behaviour are still important.
Your child might also have some sleep problems. You can manage many sleep problems by helping your child wind down before bed, making sure he has a quiet and relaxing sleep environment, and giving him good food and lots of activity during the day.
When you feel your child is ready, encourage your child to get back into the things she enjoyed before the trauma, like playing sport or visiting friends. And look for new positive activities that your child might enjoy.
– Miriam, mother of a three-year-old
Toddlers and preschoolers after trauma: tips for helping them recover
After a traumatic event, toddlers and preschoolers often express their feelings through behaviour like tantrums. Children in this age group might be less playful or creative. And they might have trouble separating from you – for example, to go to child care, preschool or school. This is because they’re worried that something will happen to you while they’re away.
There are many ways you can help your young child start feeling better:
- If your child is upset you can help her to name her feelings. For example, ‘Something bad happened, so you feel sad. It’s OK to feel sad’. As your child calms down, try to distract her with a fun game, story or song.
- If your child is very quiet and withdrawn, you can help him to talk by reminding him of the words for different feelings. For example, ‘I felt scared when the storm came’.
- If your child is having trouble going to bed at night or staying asleep, having nightmares or calling out and getting out of bed, comfort your child and put her back to bed when she’s calm. A regular bedtime routine can help.
- If your child is having trouble with separation, reassure your child that you’re safe and that the danger has passed. You can also ask your child’s carers or teachers for help with managing the separation.
- If your child seems to have ‘forgotten’ how to do things like talking or using the toilet, remember that this is normal. Once your child feels safe, he’ll be able to do these things again.
- If some of your child’s old habits have come back – for example, thumb-sucking or wetting the bed, remember that this is normal too. The habits will usually go away when your child feels safe again.
School-age children and pre-teens after trauma: tips for helping them recover
Some school-age children might have trouble separating from you. And children in this age group might feel responsible for the traumatic event and have difficulty concentrating at school.
Here are some ways to help your school-age or pre-teen child recover in the period after trauma:
- If your child is having trouble with separation, reassure your child that you’re all safe. You can also ask your child’s teachers for help with managing the separation.
- If your child behaves in challenging ways, let her know why she’s acting this way and help her find other ways to express feelings. For example, ‘You slammed that door really hard. I’m guessing 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, let him know that this is normal after a traumatic event. You can also teach him to care for himself – for example, by having a glass of water and a rest. If the problem doesn’t go away, it’s a good idea to check with your child’s GP just in case.
- If your child blames herself for what happened and feels guilty or ashamed, let her know that it’s normal to feel like this. You can also say that she didn’t cause the event, and that nobody blames her for it.
- Give your child the chance to ask you questions. Try to answer his questions, and check that he’s understood what you’ve said.
- Try to work through worries with your child. For example, ‘I know it was scary when we had to leave home because of the fire. But remember how we followed our bushfire plan? And then lots of people helped us know what to do next’.
- If your child keeps reliving the event when playing or drawing, let her know that thinking about the event is normal. But then gently guide her game, drawing or story away from the event. For example, ‘You’re drawing lots of pictures of our house being flooded. Lots of 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?’.
Teenagers after trauma: tips for helping them recover
After a traumatic event, some teenagers might feel different and isolated from their peers. Some might get involved in risky behaviour like drinking.
Here are some ideas for supporting your teenage child during this time:
- If your child is blaming himself for what happened, let him know that it’s normal to feel like this but that the event wasn’t caused by anything he did or didn’t say or do.
- If you think your child might be hiding her feelings, encourage her to express them. Let her know that they’ll be easier to handle over time. For example, ‘I think most people are feeling pretty down at the moment. I know I am. But it’s OK to feel that way. These feelings will pass in time, so we’ll just have to be patient’. Your child might also like to check on her friends to see how they’re going.
- If your child is behaving disrespectfully or ignoring family rules, let him know why he’s acting this way. For example, ‘You’re cross with me because you’re really angry. How about we go for a run to get some of that anger out?’.
- If your child is having problems at school, talk with her and her teachers about what has happened. You can ask the school whether your child could see a school psychologist or counsellor, have more time to finish assignments or reduce her study load.
- If your child is taking dangerous risks – for example, drinking or taking drugs – start by talking 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 – for example, leaving school – let him know that it’s best to leave the big decisions until life has calmed down.
Trouble coping after a traumatic event
Recovering after a traumatic event takes time, and you and your child don’t have to do it alone. There are services that can support you.
If you have any concerns about how your child is coping, talk with your child’s GP. The GP can refer you to local services and professionals who can help you and your child.
Children who seem to be coping OK might have symptoms much later on, or feel more distressed around the anniversary of the event. It’s good to check in with teachers and other adults around your child to make sure she’s getting the support she needs.