Traumatic events: how children might react
Traumatic events include car crashes, natural disasters, unexpected deaths or diagnoses, and other sudden and shocking events. Children might react to events like these in many ways. For example, children might:
- feel confused or worried, or blame themselves for what happened
- be sad, angry, irritable, guilty or ashamed
- behave in difficult ways, disobey rules, cling to you or avoid other people
- become quiet or withdrawn
- suddenly not be able to do things they could do before, like using the toilet or getting dressed
- have physical symptoms like headaches, stomach aches or loss of appetite
- have problems sleeping or concentrating.
If your child has experienced a traumatic event, they’ll need your support immediately after the traumatic event. But reactions to traumatic events don’t always happen straight away. Sometimes they happen later, which is why children need your support in the days and weeks afterwards.
Supporting children of all ages after traumatic events
Children of all ages need help to cope with and recover from traumatic events in the days and weeks afterwards. Here are some things you can do.
Talking and listening
When you make time for talking with your child about the traumatic event, you can explain what has happened 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 will probably have questions too. These questions let you check whether your child understands what’s going on. They also give you clues about how your child is feeling and 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’.
Handling reminders of the traumatic event
Your child might be frightened by reminders of the event, like smoke after a bushfire.
You can explain what’s happening and let your child know that it’s OK to be afraid. Reassure your child that they’re 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 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 really fun?’
Family routines help children feel safe and secure. That’s why they’re important after a traumatic event.
Here are some 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.
- Try to get your child to child care, playgroup, kindergarten or school, if possible. This helps children understand that their safe places and familiar people are still there for them. Let your child’s carers or teachers know what has happened. This will help them support and care for your child.
- When you feel your child is ready, encourage your child to get back into the things they enjoyed before the trauma, like playing sport or visiting friends. And look for new positive activities that your child might enjoy.
Toddlers and preschoolers: helping them recover after traumatic events
After a traumatic event, toddlers and preschoolers might not express their feelings with words. Some children might express feelings through play, or through behaviour like tantrums. Children in this age group might also be less playful or creative after traumatic events.
There are many ways you can help your young child start feeling better:
- Help your child to name feelings – for example, ‘Something bad happened, so you feel sad. It’s OK to feel sad’. As your child starts to feel better, try to distract them with 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, 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 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, they’ll be able to do these things again.
- If habits like thumb-sucking or wetting the bed have come back, remember that this is normal. The habits will usually go away when your child feels safe again.
- If the traumatic event is in the news, help your child cope with media coverage by limiting what they see and hear. But if your child sees some media coverage and wants to talk about it, always make time to talk and listen.
School-age children and pre-teens: helping them recover after traumatic events
Children in this age group might feel responsible for the traumatic event and have difficulty concentrating at school. They might also spend a lot of time thinking about their safety and the safety of others.
Here are some ways you can help them understand and cope with their feelings about and reactions to the traumatic event:
- 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 separation.
- If your child behaves in challenging ways, explain why they’re acting this way and help them 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, help your child to care for themselves – 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 themselves for what happened, you can reassure them that they didn’t cause the event, and that nobody blames them for it.
- 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 people helped us know what to do next’.
- 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 really well to call 000’.
- If your child keeps reliving the event through play or drawing, gently guide their games, drawing or story 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?’
- If the traumatic event is in the news, help your child cope with media coverage by giving them accurate, age-appropriate information, plus opportunities to talk.
Teenagers: helping them recover after traumatic events
After a traumatic event, some teenagers might feel different and isolated from their peers. They might become anxious or depressed. 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 themselves for what happened, let your child know that it’s normal to feel like this but that the event wasn’t caused by anything your child did or didn’t say or do.
- If you think your child is hiding their feelings, 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 are feeling pretty down at the moment. I know I am. But it’s OK to feel this way. These feelings will pass in time’.
- Encourage your child to talk with their friends if you feel this is a healthy outlet for your child’s emotions. Sometimes your child might even prefer to talk with friends than with you, which is OK. For teenagers, good friends can be like a personal support group.
- If your child is behaving disrespectfully or ignoring family rules, explain why they’re acting this way. For example, ‘You’re shouting at 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 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.
- If the traumatic event is in the news, help your child cope with media coverage by talking with them about this coverage. This is especially important if they’re getting a lot of information from social media. You can explain that seeing coverage of the traumatic event over and over again might make your child feel stressed or upset.
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 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. The GP can refer you to local services and professionals who can help you and your child.
It’s also good to check in with teachers and other adults around your child to make sure your child is getting the support they need.
Supporting your child after a traumatic event can be really tough. As your child’s support person it’s important to look after yourself. If you’re having trouble coping it’s important to seek help from your GP or a trusted friend. Call Lifeline on 131 114 (24 hours, 7 days) or contact a parenting helpline.