Trauma can happen at any age—unfortunately, that means children sometimes have to deal with it.
Victoria Rosenberg, licensed mental health therapist for Carilion Clinic’s Pediatric Behavioral Medicine department, explains that while there are different kinds of trauma, how to help a child after the fact is in many ways the same.
“Whether it’s a bad car accident, a house fire, the traumatic death of a loved one or abuse that directly involves the child, keeping a sense of stability and keeping life as normal as possible is key,” she said.
Even when a traumatic incident affects a child but doesn’t directly involve them (like a fire when no one is home), kids need to be reassured that they are safe, that what they are feeling is ok and that you are there for them.
If information comes forward about trauma in the form of abuse of the child, make sure they know they are safe, that you believe them and that you are doing everything you can to help and protect them.
And be sure to take care of yourself following a traumatic event as well.
“Kids figure out how to respond by watching how the adults around them are acting,” said Victoria. “By controlling your own emotions and taking care of yourself, you’re providing them with an example of how to handle it.”
Above all, support your child after any kind of trauma.
In the first month after a trauma occurs, you may see behavioral changes in your child as they deal with the acute stress of the situation. Keep an eye on how they’re feeling, let them know that it is natural to feel scared or angry or worried and try to make their environment as normal and secure as possible.
But make sure you’re acknowledging the situation.
“Sometimes as parents, we assume that shielding our kids from every negative situations and emotion is the best thing,” said Victoria. “In actuality, keeping them in the dark can create more fear because they don’t understand the situation.”
If your kids have questions, answer them honestly and in an age-appropriate way—but without overloading them with information they don’t need.
After a month, if your child continues to exhibit major changes in sleep or behavior, it may be time to talk to a professional who is trained to help children who have been through trauma.
Changes can include:
- Clingy behavior
- Frequent acting out
- Trouble functioning in school
Just don’t let the behaviors continue—they likely will not resolve on their own, but should respond to therapy.
Also make sure teachers are aware of what’s going on so they can help your child appropriately at school. School should be an ally, not an adversary.
“Having supportive people around makes children feel safe and can help protect them from developing post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Victoria. “Even if you don’t know exactly how to handle the situation, remember that just being loving and supportive helps—and remember that there is help available.”