Children Who Experience Traumatic Events

Car accidents, robbery, murder, natural disasters, rape, kidnappings, terrorism and war. Traumatic events occur every day and children may be exposed to them. Whether as victims of or witnesses to a traumatic event, children’s mental health may be impacted and caregivers should be aware of ways they can help.

It is important to note that following a traumatic event, initial signs of distress may not suggest that the child has developed a mental illness. It is normal for anyone exposed to a traumatic event to react to it, whether by feeling shocked, sad, angry, anxious, or other such emotions. At the same token, the child’s initial signs of distress should still be addressed to ensure that they are comforted and can feel safe again.

Children may react to trauma in different ways, including experiencing flashbacks, increased clinging to caregivers, crying, expressions of fear, physical complaints (such as headaches and stomachaches), wandering aimlessly, being easily startled, behaviors typical of children younger than them (including thumb sucking and bed wetting), nightmares, refusing to go to school, difficulty concentrating, withdrawal, poor academic performance and angry outbursts.

In responding to a traumatic event, first response should be aimed at basic human needs (food, shelter, clothing, medical attention for injuries). Following this, attention should be paid to the mental trauma. While most children recover from this over a few weeks, some may take longer and develop multiple reactions, requiring mental health interventions.

In the early stages after the event, caregivers should understand that the child may be struggling to understand the event and the effect it has had on their life.
The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that caregivers should let children know:
• You love them
• The event was not their fault
• You will take care of them, but only if you can; be honest
• It’s okay for them to feel upset

• Allow children to cry
• Allow sadness
• Let children talk about feelings
• Let them write about feelings
• Let them draw pictures

While most children will return to their prior level of functioning with the support of their loved ones, it is also important for caregivers to be aware of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which may develop in some children. PTSD involves reactions to trauma that can last several months to years. These children may continue to reexperience the traumatic event (through memories, flashbacks, dreams, etc.), as well as the reactions listed above. If untreated, PTSD can lead to long-term mood instability, physical health problems, increased susceptibility to future traumatic events and abuse, poor academic performance and substance use. Early intervention in the treatment of PTSD is key.

With children, continual and aggressive emotional outbursts, serious problems at school, preoccupation with the traumatic event, continued and extreme withdrawal, and other signs of intense anxiety or emotional difficulties all point to the need for professional assistance. A qualified mental health professional can help such children and their parents understand and deal with thoughts, feelings and behaviors that result from trauma.American Psychological Association

While we may be unable to avoid the occurance of traumatic events, with the knowledge of children’s reactions and an understanding of how they can be helped, caregivers can begin the process of recovery. More information and tips are available when you Read More.

Read More: National Institute of Mental Health’s ‘Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Violence and Disasters: What Parents Can Do’
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Talking to your children about the recent spate of school shootings
Tips for recovering from disasters and other traumatic events

Image: Arvind Balaraman /



About Traci S. Williams-Nurse

Dr. Traci Williams-Nurse is a licensed psychologist who specialized in child, adolescent and family psychology. Her interests include child development, family functioning, video games and food. She was born and raised in Trinidad & Tobago and currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia.
This entry was posted in Abuse, Academic Performance, Death, Mental Health, Trauma, Violence and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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