Traumatic events and children
A traumatic event is a sudden, unexpected and shocking event that makes children feel scared, distressed or overwhelmed. For example, traumatic events might include bushfires, car accidents, or the sight of someone who’s badly hurt.
Some events cause some children trauma, but not other children. So whether events are traumatic depends on how events affect children and how children react to them. And children’s reactions to potentially traumatic events depend on a few things – how old they are, whether they’ve been through a traumatic event before, and what kind of support they get from family, friends and school. Personality and temperament play a role too.
How children see an event also affects how much distress they feel. For example, a car accident will feel more traumatic if a child thought they were going to die.
This is why two children who go through the same traumatic event – for example, a bushfire – might react differently.
Although some children might be very upset following a traumatic event, over time most children cope and recover.
First response for children who’ve been in traumatic events
There are some things that you can do straight away to help your child after a traumatic event.
Checking your child’s physical wellbeing
- Check for signs of illness, injury or shock and seek medical attention if needed.
- Keep your child warm and offer food and drink at the usual times. It’s OK if your child doesn’t want much to eat or drink. It’s normal for children to have smaller appetites after a traumatic event.
Helping your child feel safe
- Find a safe and secure space for your child, away from reminders of the event. For young children, this could be a supervised area to play games, draw and read. For older children and teenagers, this could be an area where they can listen to music and do art activities.
- 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.
- Spend time with your child, and listen if your child wants to talk. Give your child plenty of hugs, and reassure them that you and other people are there for them.
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. If your child sees someone who’s very upset, let your child know why. 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 look after pets or younger brothers or sisters. Caring for others can help children stay calm 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 with your child about this tough topic.
- 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 your child to ask questions.
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. But always make time to listen and explain things in ways your child 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 traumatic event might make them feel stressed or upset.
If your child has pale or clammy skin, a weak or rapid pulse or dizziness, or if your child can’t respond to you, this is shock. Shock is caused by injury or sudden fright. If you suspect your child is injured, go to your nearest hospital or call an ambulance on 000. Shock caused by a sudden fright doesn’t need immediate medical treatment. Comfort your child and reassure your child that they’re safe. Seek medical attention if the shock doesn’t go away.
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.
Sometimes you or your child might need extra support to feel better. If you think you or your child needs support, talk to your GP 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.