Helping your child cope with traumatic events

6min read

Traumatic events include any event that is unexpected, dangerous, frightening or shocking to your child or teen, and makes them feel anxious, fearful, scared, or distressed. This could include the death of a loved one, their parents divorcing, being bullied, world events, accidents, or natural disasters. Your child may need professional support dealing with some traumatic events and your GP should be able to make a necessary referral.  

Key Points:

  • Help your child feel safe by letting them know that you are there for them  
  • Encourage discussions about their feelings so you understand their experience and build resiliency 
  • Recovery from a traumatic event takes time, however most children are able to learn healthy strategies.  
  • Courage and confidence will increase over time, the more opportunities they have to prove to themselves they can cope 

Understanding their response

It is not uncommon for a child to display negative behaviour after experiencing something traumatic. Their emotions may feel more erratic, or they may show signs of aggression or anger. They may become very clingy or regress in their behaviours or act distant. These are some of the signs that they may be struggling with their feelings.  

Negative behaviour is the result of negative feelings, so try your best to remain calm and try to identify what it is that they need from you. Remind yourself that they are not doing it to be naughty or defiant and this may be their way of coping with a difficult situation.  

If your child is scared or overwhelmed, you may notice they have some physical symptoms such as tummy aches or headaches. They may avoid social situations and withdraw from their friends. They may lose their appetite or want to comfort eat. This may indicate that they are feeling anxious. 

Supporting younger children

Young children are still developing the skills required to express their feelings and may not know the words to use. Encouraging them to draw their feelings or act them out may help them communicate how they are really feeling.  

If you notice a particular behaviour, help your child name this feeling, for example, “You look like you may be feeling confused right now. That’s OK, would you like to talk about it?  

If your child is withdrawn and struggling to talk about their feelings, ask them to talk about how their favourite toy is feeling. Ask them what their toy needs from them, as if they suggest toy needs a hug, you can be sure they need a hug too.  You may notice that your young child has regressed. This is not unusual and is a natural response for some children. This will pass once they feel more secure.

Supporting primary aged children

At this age, a child may be able to talk about the event more openly and may have feelings of guilt or fear. Being able to share their feelings and have them confirmed by you will help relieve some of their feelings. Some children may act in a challenging way, if this is the case, help them understand this is because of their hurt feelings and encourage more healthy ways to express them.  

Remind them that you love them very much and let them know that you are there for them. If they continue to struggle with their feelings, they may benefit from creating a worry box, which is a safe space where children “post” their anxious thoughts. It could be an old shoe box or a cereal box. 

Supporting teens

Teenagers may feel depressed, anxious or distant. They may isolate themselves or engage in risky behaviour such as drinking, staying out late, etc. to distract themselves from the pain they are feeling.   

If you think they are trying to hide from their feelings, try to understand why and encourage them to express them so you can validate them. Reassure them that what they are feeling is ok. You may want to talk about your own feelings to help them open up to you. They may prefer talking to their friends or another trusted adult.  

If your child is struggling with school, talk with their teacher or head of year to see if they can access pastoral support. The school may be able to provide some quiet space during the school day if they are feeling overwhelmed.  

If your teenager is blaming themselves, or somehow feels responsible, try and understand why they feel this way and talk through the facts. It is not unusual for us to distort our thinking when we are feeling anxious, so they may see a situation in its extreme form rather that factually.  

Helping your child feel safe

Everyone reacts differently to traumatic events, both during and after the event. Some children may react immediately, whereas others may react weeks or even months later. Ensure your child spends time with the people who help them feel safe. Your child may be feeling very anxious and insecure so show them plenty of affection and reassurance. Let your child know that you are there for them when they need you.  

Encourage your child to talk about what has happened. Talking together also gives you the opportunity to understand how your child feels about the experience and gives them a safe space to ask questions. Allow them to talk freely without interruption, and answer their questions as honestly as you can, in an age-appropriate way. Talking about difficult subjects can be reassuring for some children as it helps them to understand what has occurred and how to process this.  

Building resilience

We can’t always protect our children but we can build their resilience so they can cope with life stresses and challenges going forward. Children are capable of coping with adversity and will often follow their parents’ lead. It is important to remain calm and help them develop coping skills. Encourage them to reach out when they need support and let them know that being brave can also mean having the courage to ask for help and support when they need it. 

Give them opportunities to take control of a situation and make their own decisions that are age appropriate and at their own pace. Thinking and acting independently is a life skill and it helps children to learn and grow their confidence through their own experience.  

Practising breathing techniques with your child can help them feel safe and manage overwhelming thoughts and feelings. It is important to also look after your own mental health too after such an event, as this will also enable you to support your child. 

Further resources

If you would like further support and advice, call our helpline on 0808 800 2222 or email us at askus@familylives.org.uk. You can talk to us online via our live chat service, which is open, Monday to Friday between 10.30am and 9pm. You may also find it helps to find out how other parents have coped with this on our online forums. 

Other organisations that can help

Better Your Life has lots of advice and resources about child and adult anxiety 

Mind has lots of useful advice about mindfulness and mental health 

NHS also has lots of advice about mindfulness and health 

This article was written by Jennifer Roblin, an anxiety relief therapist and confidence coach at Better Your Life.

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