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:
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.
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.