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Children and adolescents’ reactions to traumatic experiences can differ from the reactions of adults. During the healing process, it is important they are shown love, support and understanding.

More than two thirds of children will experience a traumatic event by the age of 16 and, afterwards, distress is almost inevitable. Most need time to calm down and, depending on the child and type of trauma, this could take days, weeks, or months. During this process, it is important that everyone affected is shown love, support and understanding.

A traumatic event could include:

  • Abuse
  • Bullying
  • Witnessing domestic violence
  • Community or school violence
  • Natural disasters
  • National disasters, such as terrorist attacks
  • Loss of a loved one
  • War
  • Car accidents
  • Serious or life-threatening illness

Children and adolescents’ reactions to traumatic experiences can differ from the reactions of adults. This can be influenced by age, development level, previous traumatic experiences and access to a support network.

Children aged 0 to 2

Infants can sense your emotions and will react and behave accordingly. If you are relaxed, your baby will feel calm and secure. If you’re anxious, agitated or overwhelmed, your baby may have trouble sleeping, sleep irregularly, be difficult to soothe or may refuse to eat.

How you can help

  • Though going through a traumatic event can be difficult for everyone affected, try your hardest to remain calm.
  • Help keep your baby’s emotions balanced by showing physical affection, smiling, speaking soothingly and making eye contact.
  • Respond consistently to your baby’s needs.
  • Maintain a routine.

Children aged 3 to 5

After experiencing a traumatic event, preschool and kindergarten-aged children may demonstrate regressive mannerisms or return to behaviours they’ve outgrown, such as bed wetting, tantrums, thumb-sucking or separation anxiety. They may demonstrate uncharacteristic behaviour, such as acting ‘babyish’ or withdrawn.

How you can help

  • Assure your child that the event is over and that they are safe.
  • Acknowledge and listen to your child’s fears.
  • When your child is upset, try to distract them. For example, play a game, read them a book or play with a pet.
  • Help the child to name their feelings, for example “you felt scared when the storm came.”
  • Protect the child from further exposure to the event. This may include footage or pictures of a natural disaster, news programmes, or conversations between other family members.
  • Make allowances for regressive behaviours, such as bedwetting or toileting accidents.
  • Try to maintain a regular bedtime routine.
  • If your child is experiencing nightmares, don’t ignore them. Instead, comfort them until they’re calm enough to go back to sleep.
  • If your child is experiencing separation anxiety, assure them that you are safe. It may be helpful to talk to your child’s preschool teacher, babysitter or other carers about their anxieties.

Children aged 6 to 11

School-aged children react to trauma differently depending on their age and stage of development. Younger school children may not have the appropriate skills to effectively communicate their emotions to those around them. On the other hand, upper primary school children are usually able to articulate their thoughts and communicate distress.

School aged children may become withdrawn or anxious and may fear another traumatic event. They may become angry, moody and irritable, which can lead to fighting with family members and peers. They may also experience stress-related physical symptoms, such as headaches, stomach aches and exhaustion.

How you can help

  • Reassure your child that they are safe, and that the people around them are safe.
  • Try to maintain a routine. This creates a sense of control and normality.
  • Keep your child busy. Organise playdates with friends, take them on outings, or play outside with them. If normal activities have been interrupted, provide alternate distractions, such as playing with toys or reading books.
  • When it comes to incidences of widespread trauma, such as a natural disaster or terrorist attack, pay attention to any rumours being spread at school. Assure your child that not everything they hear is true and correct any misinformation.
  • Limit a child’s exposure to news covering the event.
  • Avoid exposure to graphic images or footage, as this may magnify the trauma.
  • Talk to your child about the experience and encourage them to ask questions. Children often feel empowered by knowledge.
  • Answer questions honestly. If you don’t know the answer, don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.”
  • Talk to your child about your own feelings. For example, “I miss grandma too” or “I was very scared when that happened, how about you?” However, don’t give details about your own fears, as this can be harmful and increase a child’s anxiety.
  • Acknowledge any physical complaints and assure your child that they are completely normal. Encourage them to rest, eat properly and stay hydrated. If these symptoms don’t go away, it is a good idea to check with your doctor.
  • Assure your child that they won’t feel like this forever.
  • If your child experiences feelings of guilt or shame, let them know that it’s normal to feel that way. Assure them that they didn’t cause the event and that nobody thinks it is their fault.

Children aged 12-18

Teenagers may deal with their emotions by isolating from friends and family. They may become more aggressive, fight more with their family and peers, begin taking risks or turn to drugs and alcohol.

How you can help

  • Assure your teen they are safe to express their feelings.
  • Encourage discussion. Often teenagers don’t want to show their emotions. It might be helpful to start a discussion when you’re doing something together, for example, going on a walk, so that the discussion doesn’t feel too confrontational.
  • Help them take action. For example, encourage them to volunteer at a charity or homeless shelter. This may help them regain a sense of control and purpose.
  • Some teens may become involved in risky behaviour such as drinking. Talk to your teen about the dangers of this, and discuss alternative ways of coping, such as going on walks or talking to someone.
  • If your child is having problems at school, talk to their teachers or school counsellor about what has happened. They may be willing to give your child extra time to complete assignments, or extra help if they’re struggling to keep up in class.
  • Suggest healthy ways your teen can get their emotions out. For example, if they’re angry, they might feel letter after going for a run.
  • Like younger children, teenagers may exhibit regressive behaviours such as sleeping with a stuffed toy. Assure them that this is normal and nothing to be ashamed of.
  • If your teen has experienced interpersonal violence, such as an assault, assure them that it wasn’t their fault, and that they aren’t to blame.

Helping children after the death of a loved one

Ages 3 to 5

  • Talk to your child about what the death means. For example, explain that they can’t see them anymore, but can still remember them and look at pictures.
  • Get your child to write them a letter. This is especially helpful if the death was sudden or unexpected, as it
    may help them say goodbye.
  • Stay calm when your child asks questions. Questions are how young children process information.
  • It may be helpful to talk to them about the idea of an afterlife. If your family isn’t religious, you can talk to them about how the person lives on in your memories.
  • Do something to commemorate the loved one. For example, plant a tree or draw a picture.

Ages 6 to 11

  • Share your feelings with your child. This will encourage them to open up.
  • Your child may feel angry, sad, or alone. Let them know that these emotions are normal and let them know you’re there for them.
  • Talk to your child about what impact the death may have on their daily life and routine. For example, ‘I
    have to work more now that daddy isn’t here.’
  • Be understanding if the child experiences problems at school after the death. Assure them that this is normal.
  • Understand that their academic performance may be affected.
  • Avoid using vague answers, such as ‘grandma is in a better place’. Most school-aged children have at least a small understanding of what death means, so these phrases may confuse them.
  • Encourage your child to celebrate the loved one’s memory. For example, planting a tree or making a scrapbook.

Ages 12 to 18

Teenagers may have difficulty expressing emotions about death. They may fear showing vulnerability and ignore and deny what has happened. It’s important to:

  • Share your own emotions with them and encourage them to share theirs.
  • Be patient.
  • Be understanding if the death affects their academic performance and assure them that their wellbeing is more important.
  • Celebrate the person’s memory. Your teen may find it helpful to pray for them, look through photo albums or plant a tree in their memory.

If these feelings don’t go away

Often people recover from a traumatic experience in the weeks and months that follow. However, some experience long lasting, distressing or worsening symptoms, which may signal the need for professional help.

People who have been through a traumatic experience may develop post-traumatic stress Disorder (PTSD). Those with PTSD experience unwanted thoughts or memories of the event, nightmares, flashbacks and heightened levels of fear and anxiety. They may avoid people, places or activities that remind them of the event.

Symptoms of PTSD may develop immediately after a traumatic event or may not surface until later. PTSD is often accompanied by depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm and substance abuse.

Resources

Kid’s Helpline: 1800 55 1800

Lifeline: 13 11 14

National centre for childhood grief

Phoenix Australia

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