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Helping children cope

Children who have experienced trauma - especially very young children - often express their feelings about the event by behaving differently. This is because most children don't have the social, psychological or developmental maturity to fully understand what has happened to them.

Symptoms that children may display after a traumatic event include:

  • Fear - the most common initial reaction to trauma. Children can be scared to be apart from their parents or guardians and need constant contact and reassurance.
  • Anger and hostility - usually an expression of the child's fear and helplessness. Temper tantrums and mood swings are common in traumatised children.
  • Nightmares - often about scary subjects other than the event. Some children may not want to sleep alone or in the dark.
  • Physical symptoms - such as tummy aches or feeling sick. These may be an expression of emotional pain.
  • Temporary regression - displaying behaviours from an earlier age. Some children may lose their toilet training, suck their thumbs or generally act like younger children.
  • Changes in eating habits - this can include not wanting to eat, hoarding food or going on eating binges.
  • Reluctance to go to school.
  • Feelings of guilt – like the traumatic event was their fault or that they could have prevented it from happening.
  • Re-enacting the trauma in play.

How can you help?

Fear and anxiety in children is very real, even though they may seem exaggerated to adults. After a traumatic event, it is important for parents and guardians to spend extra time with their children and reassure them.

If a child is frightened or behaving differently, they should not be reprimanded or punished. Talk with the child to help them share their feelings about what happened. Ways to help children cope with trauma include:

  • giving honest, simple and brief answers to their questions - try to use words that won't confuse a child. If a child asks the same thing repeatedly, it is because they are trying to make sense out of the confusion in their world.
  • allowing children to express their feelings and reactions - children will react in different ways.
  • reassuring them that they are still loved and will be cared for. They may need reassurance that they will be safe.
  • being patient if your child's behaviour regresses. Normally this is temporary, but if it persists, you should talk to a doctor or counsellor.
  • keeping family routines and making things as normal as possible - this can help a child feel more secure.
  • expressing your own fears honestly - if a child senses that you are secretly worried, they may also keep worries to themselves. Admitting your fears and showing that you can handle them sends the message that they can overcome their fears too. 
  • informing the child's teacher/ school/daycare, so they are prepared for any behavioural changes or changes in the child's grades.
  • accepting and allowing increased dependence - after a traumatic experience, children may become more dependent on parents. Give more hugs if they need them or sit with them longer when they go to bed. Try not to get annoyed or frustrated with clinging behaviour.
  • being a parent in the way you normally would - children still need boundaries. It helps them to feel safe and secure.

When should I seek professional help?

Getting professional help is a good idea if a child is having ongoing symptoms or showing any of the following changes:

  • Behavioural or academic problems at school
  • Angry outbursts or temper tantrums
  • Withdrawal from usual social activities or other children
  • Frequent nightmares or sleep disturbances
  • Physical problems such as nausea, headaches, weight gain or loss
  • Dangerous, risk taking behaviour
  • Depression, sense of hopelessness and anxiety about life or the future
  • Sexualised behaviours beyond normal development or age group.

To speak with a counsellor from the Victim Support Service, phone (08) 9425 2850 or Freecall 1800 818 988.

If your child is required to give evidence in court, contact the Child Witness Service at the Department of the Attorney General.

A counsellor can provide your child with a safe place to talk about what has happened and can refer them to other agencies and services, if required.

Last updated: 18-Feb-2013

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