Children are affected by events that threaten their safety and the safety of their parents and significant others. Extreme negative events such as a motor vehicle accident, community disaster, loss of parent, animal attack or serious injury or illness can cause children to sense the world as dangerous and unpredictable, resulting in traumatic reactions.
For some children these reactions occur immediately following the event, and for others the reactions surface much later. It is important that adults recognize these reactions and help children cope.
Common reactions include:
1. Emotional Upset
Extreme fear and shock from the incident can cause children to be unsettled emotionally. Crying, anger outbursts, sadness and anxiety are all common reactions. Children may seem calm one moment and upset the next. Minor frustrations after the incident can trigger significant distress.
2. Sleep Problems
Children can remain unsettled and scared, making it difficult to fall asleep or sleep on their own. Also, for some children, traumatic events can get replayed in dreams, causing nightmares and sleep disruption.
3. Separation Anxiety
Children often become more demanding or clingy after a traumatic incident. They may have difficulty separating from a parent and be reluctant to return to daycare or school. This is an attempt to self-soothe and seek reassurance to regain their sense of safety and connection.
Children often regress in their development following a traumatic incident. Traumatic events stress a child’s coping resources. Children who have learned to sleep alone or were toilet trained may have difficulty with these tasks for some time after the incident.
5. Physical Complaints
Physical tension as well as emotional shock and upset during and following a traumatic event can cause physical symptoms such as stomachaches and headaches.
6. Behavior Change
Following a traumatic incident, children may display new behaviors such as aggression, isolation or defiance. Concerning or difficult behaviors that emerge following a traumatic incident are usually related to feelings of fear and mistrust.
Like adults, children often try to avoid anything related to the traumatic incident. For example, following a car accident a child may refuse to get in a car or become upset when a parent drives away in a car. In the case of a dog attack, a child may develop considerable fear of dogs and become upset in the presence of dogs or other animals. Anything related to a traumatic incident can become a trigger for reminders and reactions related to the trauma.
For most children, these reactions usually resolve within 2-4 weeks. However, reactions may be prolonged or complicated depending on individual and situational factors. For example, children with sensitive temperaments or anxiety disorders may not recover spontaneously. Previous trauma and loss in a child’s life may exacerbate more current trauma reactions. In addition, trauma that is repetitive or on-going, such as neglect, domestic violence or abuse, can create significant difficulties and longer-term effects, requiring professional intervention.
Adult support and protection is the most important strategy for helping children cope with a traumatic life event. Patience, extra attention and compassion convey to a child that they are protected and can count on adults for safety and predictability. Adults can also model resilience for children by expressing their own thoughts and emotions appropriately and seeking support for themselves when faced with difficult life events.