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Helping Children Cope After a Traumatic Event

Hispanic father with kids looking down and sad on white background

Children react to trauma in many of the some ways that adults do. There are as many reactions as there are people. The world may suddenly seem dangerous and unsafe. Your child may feel overwhelmed by intense emotions, and not understand how to cope with these feeling. Here is how you as a parent can help.

Faith in God is the most significant help in time of grief and loss. Attend worship services, pray together, and seek spiritual counseling.

Help your child talk about the event. Let them know that it’s normal to feel worried or upset. Try to listen carefully and understand what they are saying.

When you talk about the event, be honest. Don’t diminish the nature of the tragedy. Talk about what happened that is age appropriate and share clear, accurate information that is age appropriate. Ask your child what she/he thinks has happened and what kids at school are saying. If he/she has any misconceptions, this is a chance to help correct false fears and misinformation. If your child knows upsetting details that are true, don’t deny them. Instead listen closely and talk with him/her about their fears.

It might be a good idea to limit the amount of TV news coverage you child sees. Too much repeated coverage could just heighten your child’s anxiety.

Try to be patient if your child keeps asking the same questions again and again. Let your child talk as often as he/she needs to about the traumatic event. Talking about the event is a way for your child to gain control of feelings that follow a trauma.

Talk with your child about your own feelings. Explain how the trauma or event is affecting you. Admit that you are saddened by what has happened and what other kids are saying. But don’t burden your child with your fears and worries. Find other adults to talk to about those.

Reassure your child that your family and community are safe and that events like these are rare.

Remember that this may be the first time your child is experiencing a scary and dangerous situation. Expect him/her to have many feelings – anger, sorrow, fear, and confusion. In a situation where someone could have died the feeling of guilt is common. Assure your child that all of these feelings are normal.

If there had been a previous traumatic or scary situation this may bring up old pain. Take the time to reflect with your child on how he/she has recovered from previous times.

Your child may feel afraid and upset following the traumatic event and may no longer feel “normal”. He/she may show his/her fears in ways that he/she did when he/she was younger –by have night terrors, crying, being clingy, or being overly fearful. These behaviors are normal. Try to be loving and understanding. Coping with a traumatic event takes time. Your child needs extra love and support from you during this period.

Don’t assume that just because your child hasn’t said something about the trauma that he/she is OK and isn’t affected by it.

Sometimes children are confused by a traumatic event, and want to avoid it, not talk about it, or are afraid to show their vulnerability. You may need to take the first step and bring up the subject when and you and your child have time together.

You might suggest that your child keep a journal to record his moods, thoughts, feelings, and worries. For younger children you can encourage them to draw their thoughts, feelings and worries. This can be helpful in coping with the powerful emotions, disturbing thoughts and feelings.

Help your child find comforting routines as a way to cope – listening to favorite music, doing art work, playing basketball, or other activities. This is a time to keep routines simple at home.

Encourage your child to become involved, as a way to overcome feeling of helplessness. Powerlessness is painful for adults and children. Be active in a campaign to prevent an event like this one from happening again. Write letters to people who helped or to another victim. Connecting and caring for others who have experienced a similar situation brings a sense of hope and control.

Temporarily lower expectations of school and home performance. Your child’s attention and emotional energy may be focused elsewhere for a few days or week.

Encourage your child to talk with other adults about the event. This might be a school counselor, teacher, member of the clergy, or someone else from the community that your child feels close to and trusts.

Most important of all, try to be there for your child. Give extra attention and support. Be affectionate. Give hugs. Make efforts to spend time together, have meals together and be together.

Stay strong as a parent. Keep in mind that your own behavior is a powerful example for your child. How your child copes with a traumatic event will depend, to some measure, on how you as a parent cope. Your child is looking to all the adults around him/her – parents, teachers, relatives, clergy and others to find ways to deal with the event. It is important for you to stay strong as a parent.

Take care of your own physical well being and stick to schedules. Seek support from others. Because you are also responding to trauma, it is very important to talk with other parents, friends, counselors and other adults. Share your anxieties and frustration with them and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Give yourself time to reflect and process.

Usually a child’s reactions to a traumatic event do not last long. If the following persist for more than a few weeks, you should seek expert help.

  • Troubled sleep or frequent nightmares
  • Fear of going to school, going outside or being left alone
  • Changes in behavior (unusual quietness, unresponsiveness, or tiredness.)
  • Angry outbursts, acting-out behavior
  • Excessive clinging
  • Excessive crying
  • Headaches or stomach aches
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Change in appetite (increased or decreased)
  • Loss of interest in once pleasurable activities
  • Drop in grades
  • Isolation, spending more time than usual alone

*Adopted from Servite High and JSerra High School

OC Family Solutions – Courtney Harkins Marriage and Family Therapist 2900 Bristol St. #A207. Costa Mesa, CA 92626 Phone: 949.916.6277 E-mail:[email protected]
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One Comment

  1. Thanks for sharing, Shelby. Even when the event doesn’t happen directly to them, the fact that it can happen to children their age can effect them as well. I think the advice you gave will be very beneficial. Thank you for sharing.

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