Helping Your Child or Teen Cope with Trauma
Helping young people avoid or overcome emotional problems in the wake of violence or disaster is one of the most important challenges a parent can face.
Research has shown that both adults and children who experience catastrophic events show a wide range of reactions. Some suffer only worries and bad memories that fade with emotional support and the passage of time. Others are more deeply affected and experience long-term problems. Children who have witnessed violence in their families, schools, or communities are also vulnerable to serious long-term problems. Their emotional reactions, including fear, depression, withdrawal or anger, can occur immediately or some time after the tragic event. Youngsters who have experienced a catastrophic event often need support from parents to avoid long-term emotional harm.
What You Can Do As A Parent:
Early intervention to help children and teens who have suffered trauma from violence or a disaster is critical. Parents can do a great deal to help a child or teen recover. After violence or a disaster occurs, the family is the first-line resource for helping. Among the things that parents and other caring adults can do are:
- Explain the episode of violence or disaster as well as you are able.
- Encourage the child or teenager to express their feelings and listen without passing judgment. Help younger children learn to use words that express their feelings. However, do not force discussion of the traumatic event.
- Let children and teenagers know that it is normal to feel upset after something bad happens.
- Allow time for the child or teenager to experience and talk about their feelings. At home, however, a gradual return to routine can be reassuring for them.
- If the child or teenager is fearful, reassure them that you love them and will take care of them. Stay together as a family as much as possible.
- If behavior at bedtime is a problem, give the child extra time and reassurance. Let him or her sleep with a light on or in your room for a limited time if necessary.
- Reassure children and teenagers that the traumatic event was not their fault.
- Do not criticize regressive behavior or shame the child or teenager with words like "babyish" or "baby."
- Allow children and teenagers to cry or be sad. Don't expect them to be brave or tough.
- Encourage children and teenagers to feel in control. Let them make some decisions about meals, what to wear, etc.
- Take care of yourself so you can take care of the them.
Children and teenagers react to trauma in many ways. Reactions to trauma may appear immediately after the traumatic event or days and even weeks later. Loss of trust in adults and fear of the event occurring again are responses seen in many children and teenagers who have been exposed to traumatic events. Other reactions vary according to age:
For children 5 years of age and younger, typical reactions can include a fear of being separated from the parent, crying, whimpering, screaming, immobility and/or aimless motion, trembling, frightened facial expressions and excessive clinging. Parents may also notice children returning to behaviors exhibited at earlier ages (these are called regressive behaviors), such as thumb-sucking, bedwetting, and fear of darkness. Children in this age bracket tend to be strongly affected by the parents' reactions to the traumatic event.
Children 6 to 11 years old may show extreme withdrawal, disruptive behavior, and/or inability to pay attention. Regressive behaviors, nightmares, sleep problems, irrational fears, irritability, refusal to attend school, outbursts of anger and fighting are also common in traumatized children of this age. Also the child may complain of stomachaches or other bodily symptoms that have no medical basis. Schoolwork often suffers. Depression, anxiety, feelings of guilt and emotional numbing or "flatness" are often present as well.
Adolescents 12 to 17 years old may exhibit responses similar to those of adults, including flashbacks, nightmares, emotional numbing, avoidance of any reminders of the traumatic event, depression, substance abuse, problems with peers, and anti-social behavior. Also common are withdrawal and isolation, physical complaints, suicidal thoughts, school avoidance, academic decline, sleep disturbances, and confusion. The adolescent may feel extreme guilt over his or her failure to prevent injury or loss of life, and may harbor revenge fantasies that interfere with recovery from the trauma.
Some youngsters are more vulnerable to trauma than others, for reasons scientists don't fully understand. It has been shown that the impact of a traumatic event is likely to be greatest in the child or adolescent who previously has been the victim of child abuse or some other form of trauma, or who already had a mental health problem. And the youngster who lacks family support is more at risk for a poor recovery.
Most children and adolescents, if given support, will recover almost completely from the fear and anxiety caused by a traumatic experience within a few weeks. However, some children and adolescents will need more help perhaps over a longer period of time in order to heal. Grief over the loss of a loved one, teacher, friend, or pet may take months to resolve, and may be reawakened by reminders such as media reports or the anniversary of the death.
In the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event, and in the weeks following, it is important to identify the children and teenagers who are in need of more intensive support and therapy because of profound grief or some other extreme emotion. Children and adolescents who may require the help of a mental health professional include those who show avoidance behavior, such as resisting or refusing to go places that remind them of the place where the traumatic event occurred, and emotional numbing, a diminished emotional response or lack of feeling toward the event. Those who have more common reactions including re-experiencing the trauma, or reliving it in the form of nightmares and disturbing recollections during the day, and hyperarousal, including sleep disturbances and a tendency to be easily startled, may respond well to supportive reassurance from parents.
IMAGES PROVIDED BY:
Medically reviewed by John A. Daller, MD; American Board of Surgery with subspecialty certification in surgical critical care August 18, 2017
Portions of the above information have been provided with the kind permission of the National Institute of Mental Health. (www.nimh.nih.gov)