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Helping children and youth cope after traumatic events

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Children and youth can have strong emotional reactions (or stress reactions) after a difficult experience. A traumatic event is one that causes a child or teen to react with horror, fear and distress. Events that might cause a stress reaction include:

  • Being in a car crash
  • Getting badly hurt
  • Witnessing violence
  • Nearly drowning
  • Seeing another person get badly hurt

How do children and youth react after traumatic events?

Everyone is different, and reactions often depend on a child’s age.

After a traumatic event, children and youth may feel:

  • Frightened
  • Angry
  • Sad
  • Guilty
  • Ashamed

You may notice that your child or teen:

  • ‘Regresses’ or behaves as they did when they were younger (wetting the bed or being very clingy)
  • Cries more often
  • Is fearful
  • Has nightmares
  • Has trouble sleeping
  • Has flashbacks (re-lives the traumatic experience)
  • Eats more or less than usual
  • Becomes ‘hypervigilant’ (very watchful to detect possible danger)

Helping children and youth to recover

Children and youth react differently to traumatic events than adults do. Parents, teachers and caregivers have a big role to play in helping children to recover after a traumatic experience. It’s important to:

  • Explain that your child or teen is not to blame for what happened.
  • Stay close. Show that you are there to support and care.
  • Stick to everyday routines as much as possible. This helps children and youth to feel safe.
  • Accept your child’s feelings. Let your child or teen know that it’s OK to feel angry, sad or frightened after what happened.
  • Give chances to express feelings. Allow your child or teen to express feelings by talking, drawing, painting or playing.
  • Express your own feelings. It’s OK to cry and be upset. But parents need to be able to cope positively with feelings before they can help a child or teen.
  • Give your child or teen more control in life. Give choices or let her make decisions about what to wear, what to eat, how to spend free time.
  • Notice when your child or teen does something well.
  • Be patient and loving. Each child or teen will heal at his own pace.

Questions?

Call your family doctor or CHEO’s Mental Health Intake line if:

  • You think your child or teen’s stress reaction is severe
  • Your child or teen is not feeling better after a month

Speak to your nurse if your child or teen is still in hospital.

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