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Traumatic events and children

About 1 in 4 children experience a traumatic event by the time they are 18 years old. Traumatic events can be life threatening and are bigger than what your child should ever have to experience. 

Learn what to watch for in your child and how to take care of your child after a traumatic event. Get professional help if your child is not recovering.

Kinds of Traumatic Events

Your child could experience a one-time traumatic event or a repeated trauma that happens over and over again. 

Examples of one-time traumatic events are:

  • Natural disasters, such as a tornado, hurricane, fire, or flood 
  • Rape
  • Witness shooting or stabbing of a person
  • Sudden death of a parent or trusted caregiver 
  • Hospitalization 

Examples of traumatic events that your child experiences over and over are:

  • Physical or emotional abuse
  • Sexual abuse 
  • Gang violence 
  • War 
  • Terrorist events

Know the Signs of Traumatic Stress

Your child may be having emotional reactions and feels:

  • Nervous
  • Worried about safety 
  • Agitated 
  • Withdrawn
  • Sad
  • Scared of sleeping alone at night 
  • Temper tantrums 
  • Dissociated -- this is an extreme and common reaction to a traumatic event. Your child copes with the trauma by withdrawing from the world. They feel detached and see things happening around them as if it is unreal. 

Your child may also be having physical problems like:

  • Stomachaches
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Trouble sleeping and nightmares 

Your child may also be reliving the event:

  • Seeing images
  • Remembering every detail of what happened and what they did
  • Have the need to tell the story over and over again

Know the Signs of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

About half of children who survive traumatic events will show signs of PTSD. Every child’s symptoms are different. In general, your child may have:

  • Intense fear
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Feelings of being agitated and disorganized
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Trouble focusing
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Changes in their interactions with others -- more aggressive or more withdrawn 

Your child may also go back to behaviors they had outgrown:

  • Bedwetting
  • Clinging
  • Sucking their thumb
  • Emotionally-numb, anxious, depressed
  • Separation anxiety

Your Child Needs Your Support

Let your child know that they are safe and that you are in control.

  • Know that your child is taking cues from you on how to react to the traumatic event. It’s okay for your to be sad or hurt.
  • But your child needs to know that you are in control and are protecting them. 

Let your child know that you are there for them.

  • Return to a daily routine as soon as you can. Create a schedule for eating, sleeping, school, and playing. Daily routines help kids know what to expect and makes them feel safe.
  • Talk to your child. Let them know what you are doing to keep them safe. Answer their questions in a way they can understand. 
  • Stay close to your child. Let them sit near you or hold your hand.
  • Accept and work with your child on regressed behaviors. 

Monitor information that your child is getting about an event. Turn off the TV news and limit your conversations about events in front of young children.

Get Your Child Help

There is no one way that children recover after traumatic events. Expect that your child should go back to their usual activities over time. 

If your child is still having trouble recovering after one month, get professional help. Your child will learn how to:

  • Talk about what happened. They will tell their stories with words, pictures, or play. This helps them see that the reaction to the trauma is normal.
  • Develop coping strategies to help with fear and anxiety 

Let teachers know about traumatic events in your child’s life. Keep open communication about changes in your child’s behavior.

References

Levetown M. Communicating with children and families: from everyday interactions to skill in conveying distressing information. Pediatrics. 2008;121:e1441-e1460.

Update Date: 8/16/2012

Updated by: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.

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