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Helping your Child Deal with Traumatic Events

How Children and Adolescents React to Trauma

Reactions to trauma may appear before, during, and after a traumatic event. Loss of trust in adults and fear of the event occurring again are responses seen in many children and adolescents who have been exposed to traumatic events. Other reactions vary according to age:

For children 5 years of age and younger, typical reactions can include a fear of being separated from the parent, crying, whimpering, screaming, immobility and/or aimless motion, trembling, frightened facial expressions and excessive clinging. Parents may also notice children returning to behaviors exhibited at earlier ages (these are called regressive behaviors), such as thumb-sucking, bed wetting, and fear of darkness. Children in this age bracket tend to be strongly affected by the parents’ reactions to the traumatic event.

Children 6 to 11 years old may show extreme withdrawal, disruptive behavior, and/or inability to pay attention. Regressive behaviors, nightmares, sleep problems, irrational fears, irritability, refusal to attend school, outbursts of anger and fighting are also common in traumatized children of this age. Also the child may complain of stomachaches or other bodily symptoms that have no medical basis. Schoolwork often suffers. Depression, anxiety, feelings of guilt and emotional numbing or “flatness” are often present as well.

Pre-Adolescence 11 to 14 year olds need to know that their fears are both appropriate and shared by others. Common symptoms for this age group include sleep and appetite disturbance, rebellion in the home, school problems, distractibility, headaches and other physical complaints, night terrors, depression, and a loss of interest in peer social activities.

Adolescents 12 to 17 years old may exhibit responses similar to those of adults, including flashbacks, nightmares, emotional numbing, avoidance of any reminders of the traumatic event, depression, substance abuse, problems with peers, and anti-social behavior. Also common are withdrawal and isolation, physical complaints, suicidal thoughts, school avoidance, academic decline, sleep disturbances, and confusion. The adolescent may feel extreme guilt over his or her failure to prevent injury or loss of life, and may harbor revenge fantasies that interfere with recovery from the trauma.

Some youngsters are more vulnerable to trauma than others, for reasons scientists don’t fully understand. It has been shown that the impact of a traumatic event is likely to be greatest in the child or adolescent who previously has been the victim of child abuse or some other form of trauma, or who already had a mental health problem. The youngster who lacks family support is more at risk for a poor recovery.

Helping your Child or Adolescent Cope

Early intervention to help children and adolescents who have suffered trauma from violence or a disaster is critical. The family is the first-line resource for helping. Parents and caregivers can help in the following ways:

Explain the episode of violence or disaster as well as you are able. Encourage the children to express their feelings and listen without passing judgment. Help younger children learn to use words that express their feelings. However, do not force discussion of the traumatic event. Let children and adolescents know that it is normal to feel upset after something bad happen. Allow time for the youngsters to experience and talk about their feelings. At home, however, a gradual return to routine can be reassuring to the child. If your children are fearful, reassure them that you love them and will take care of them. Stay together as a family as much as possible. Turn off the TV, as watching television reports on the war/disasters may overwhelm children.

Watch your own behavior. Be careful to avoid racial stereotyping, slurs or expressions of hatred against groups of people. This is also an opportunity to teach your children that it is wrong to hate an entire group of people for the acts of a few. Likewise, encourage volunteer work, as it can give your child a sense of control, security, and empathy.

If behavior at bedtime is a problem, give the child extra time and reassurance. Let him or her sleep with a light on or in your room for a limited time if necessary. Reassure children and adolescents that the traumatic event was not their fault. Do not criticize regressive behavior or shame the child with words like “babyish.” Allow children to cry or be sad. Don’t expect them to be brave or tough. Encourage children and adolescents to feel in control. Let them make some decisions about meals, what to wear, etc. Take care of yourself so you can take care of the children.

Available Resources

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
Information Resources and Inquiries Branch
6001 Executive Boulevard, Rm. 8184, MSC 9663
Bethesda, MD 20892-9663
Public Inquiries: 301-443-4513
Media Inquiries: 301-443-4536
TTY: 301-443-8431
E-mail: nimhinfo@nih.gov
Web site: http://www.nimh.nih.gov

U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20202
Phone: 1-800-USA-LEARN
TTY: 1-800-437-0833
E-mail: customerservice@inet.ed.gov
Web site: http://www.ed.gov

American Psychiatric Association
1400 K Street, NW
Washington, DC 20005
Phone: 1-888-357-7924 or 202-682-6000
E-mail: apa@psych.org
Web site: http://www.psych.org

American Psychological Association
750 First Street, NE
Washington, DC 20002
Phone: 202-336-5500
Web site: http://www.apa.org

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
3615 Wisconsin Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20016-3007
Phone: 202-966-7300
Web site: http://www.aacap.org