How to Help Your Child After a Traumatic Event

Many children are exposed – both directly and indirectly – to traumatic events during the course of their childhood. In many cases indirect exposure, such as watching footage from the scene of a terror attack, may elicit posttraumatic symptoms. Children may feel vulnerable and threatened in a world that they do not fully understand. The aftermath of such exposure may include fear, nightmares, regressive behavior (such as bedwetting in children who are toilet-trained), and an increase in aggressive behavior.

The way a child reacts to a traumatic event depends on a number of factors: age, personality, the severity and proximity of the traumatic event and the level of support received from family and friends. You, as parents, are the single most important resource for your child’s coping during and after exposure to trauma. Most children will recover from exposure to trauma without professional psychological help, but with the aid of those close to them. That is why your support is essential and that you remain sensitive to distress signals that your child transmits.  During trying times parents are often focused on their own distress and loss, and children can be forgotten.  Make sure you pay special attention to your child during the aftermath of traumatic events affecting your family.

Below we offer a number of practical suggestions that will help you and your child cope with this kind of crisis situation.

  1. Be aware of your own reactions to the event

Children work out how to react to a situation by watching the meaningful adults around them, including parents, older siblings and teachers. So try, as much as possible, to behave in a calm and calming manner. In order to do this you may wish to share your thoughts and feelings with adult friends or family members before you talk with your child.

2. Devote more attention to your child

Extra attention on your part during this difficult time gives your child the opportunity to express his experiences and feel safe. If your child wants to talk about feelings, be supportive and encouraging. Show your understanding and acceptance of these feelings by explaining that feelings such as fear, anger and guilt are all normal reactions to an “abnormal” event. See here for more information about talking with your children about fears.

3. Be sensitive to your child’s level of understanding

Adapt the information you provide your child with to his or her age and maturity level. A surplus of information may confuse young children, and cause additional fear and insecurity. However, clearly presented facts can often clear up misconceptions. Providing limited information and then allowing for questions is often a good route to take.  It is important to encourage conversation, but if your child is not interested in talking, do not insist on it. In any case, it is important not to raise unfounded speculations or provide incorrect information about what has happened.

4. Limit your child’s exposure to the media

Avoid exposing your child to graphic and live news reports from the scene of traumatic events such as terrorist attacks. This is particularly important in the early childhood and younger elementary school age groups. Often parents are so involved in the unfolding drama on the television or radio that they are unaware of their young child who may be exposed to coverage that will later cause distressing nightmares or thoughts.

5. Try to maintain a normal routine

Attempt to provide your child with reassuring and realistic messages about his or her safety –Talk with your child about how to avoid traumatic or distressing situations in the future. This will strengthen his or her sense of safety and control. Encouraging a return to a daily routine is very reassuring to children and carries with it a very strong message of safety in a nonverbal, yet direct, way.  Help your child relax using various relaxation techniques especially for children.

6. Be attentive to behaviors that signal distress

Pay attention to patterns of play that reenact the trauma again and again, and to complaints about “bad dreams.” These behaviors are normal following a traumatic event, and can be a child’s way of coping with the trauma. However, if there is no change in the intensity and frequency of these behaviors after a month, or if they intensify, it is a good idea to consider seeking professional help.

7. Be especially attentive to adolescents who show signs of distress

Among adolescents, special care and attention should be paid to expressed talk of thoughts about suicide, drug abuse, eating or sleeping disorders and unusual displays of anger. These symptoms should be dealt with immediately, as they generally do not disappear of their own accord without professional treatment. Learn about children’s and adolescents responses to trauma.

8. Accept help from family and friends

In the period following the loss it may be overwhelming to take care of your child or children as well as of yourselves. Do not hesitate to ask family and close friends to help you out with babysitting, rides to school, or any other activities that you feel are appropriate.

9. Take care of yourself

As the main support that your child depends on, you must take good care of yourselves. Keep in touch with family and friends and share your feelings with other adults, particularly those who may have gone through similar experiences. Try to eat a balanced diet, get enough sleep and add physical exercise and other fun activities to your weekly routine. And again — do not hesitate to seek professional help for either consultation or treatment if it seems to you that you or your child could benefit from such assistance. Learn about self-care here.

Compiled from:
Practical Suggestions for Assisting Children in the Aftermath of a Tragedy,” by The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress
Parents Guide for Helping Children Deal with Traumatic Events Worldwide (PDF) – coming soon!