Natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes, along with violent acts including shootings and terrorist actions, have two consequences. First, they physically harm property and people, often resulting in deaths. Second, they cause trauma in survivors of these events. Trauma is hurt or harm to a person’s body or mind.
Children are very sensitive to upsetting events, and often struggle to make sense of trauma. They may have emotional reactions, or they may hurt deeply. Children also often have a difficult time recovering from frightening experiences.
Parents and family members play important roles in helping children cope with trauma. They should help protect children from further trauma, and find appropriate medical care and counselling. They can also help young people avoid or overcome emotional problems that can result from trauma.
What is trauma?
There are two types of trauma—physical and mental. Physical trauma includes the body’s response to serious injury and threat. Mental trauma includes frightening thoughts and painful feelings. These thoughts and feelings are the mind’s response to serious injury. Mental trauma can produce strong feelings. It can also produce extreme behaviours such as intense fear, helplessness, withdrawal, detachment, lack of concentration, irritability, sleep disturbance, aggression, hypervigilance (constantly expecting more distressing events) or flashbacks (sensing that the event is reoccurring). Fear may also be a response, including the fear that a loved one will be hurt or killed.
It is believed that more direct exposure to traumatic events causes greater harm. For instance, in a school shooting, an injured student will probably be more severely affected emotionally than a student who was in another part of the building. However, second-hand exposure to violence can also be traumatic. This includes seeing or hearing about violence (e.g., war, terrorism) through the media.
Helping Young Trauma Survivors
Helping children affected by tragedy begins at the scene of the event. Most children recover within a few weeks, although some may need help for longer periods of time. Grief (a deep emotional response to loss) may take months or years to resolve. Grief may be re-experienced or worsened by news reports or the event’s anniversary.
Some children may need help from a mental health professional, while others may turn to religious leaders, community leaders, teachers or other adults and friends for assistance.
The first step in helping those affected by trauma is to identify the children who need assistance.
Children under five years of age may react in a number of ways to traumatic events:
- Facial expressions of fear
- Clinging to the parent or caregiver
- Crying or screaming
- Whimpering or trembling
- Moving aimlessly
- Becoming immobile
- Returning to behaviours common to being younger like thumb-sucking, bed-wetting and fearing the dark.
Children between six and 11 have a range of reactions to trauma. They may:
- Isolate themselves from friends and family
- Become quiet around friends, family and teachers
- Have nightmares or other sleep problems
- Become irritable or disruptive
- Have outbursts of anger
- Start fights
- Experience difficulty concentrating
- Refuse to attend school
- Complain of unfounded physical problems
- Develop unfounded fears
- Become depressed
- Feel guilty
- Feel emotionally numb
- Perform poorly in school.
Children between 12 and 17 have various reactions to trauma, including:
- Flashbacks to the traumatic event
- Avoid reminders of the event
- Drug, alcohol and tobacco use and abuse
- Antisocial behaviours including being disruptive, disrespectful and destructive
- Physical complaints
- Nightmares or other sleep problems
- Isolation or confusion
- Suicidal thoughts.
Adolescents may feel guilty about the event for not preventing injury or deaths. They may also have thoughts of revenge.
How Parents and Family Can Help
After violence or a disaster, parents and family should:
- Identify and address their personal feelings.
- Explain to children what happened.
- Tell children that you love them, the event was not their fault, you will take care of them (but only if you can; be honest) and it is OK for them to feel upset.
- Allow children to cry and feel sadness.
- Let children talk, draw or write about their feelings.
Parents and other adults should not:
- Expect children to be brave.
- Make children discuss the event before they are ready.
- Get angry if children show strong emotions.
- Get upset if children begin bed-wetting, thumb-sucking or acting out.
- Make promises they cannot keep.
If children have trouble sleeping, give them extra attention, let them sleep with a light on or let them sleep in your room (for a short time).
Try to keep normal routines for activities like going to sleep, eating dinner, watching TV, reading books, exercising and playing games. If you cannot keep old routines, try to make new ones together.
Help children feel in control. Ways to do this include letting them choose meals, pick out their clothes, and make decisions for themselves whenever possible.
Contacting a Mental Health Professional
Some children may experience prolonged problems after a traumatic event. These may include grief, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many trauma survivors may need counselling from a mental health professional.
You should contact a mental health professional if, after a month in a safe environment, children are unable to perform normal routines or start to develop new symptoms. Some symptoms may require immediate attention. Contact your Employee Assistance Program for a referral to a mental health professional if these symptoms occur:
- Racing heart and sweating
- Being easily startled
- Being emotionally numb
- Being very sad or depressed
- Thoughts or actions concerning suicide or the death of others.
Health Canada – http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/
Public Health Agency of Canada – http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/index-eng.php
Canadian Mental Health Association: http://www.cmha.ca/
Mental Health Commission of Canada: http://www.mentalhealthcommission.ca/English
©2014 ComPsych ® Corporation. All rights reserved. This information is for educational purposes only. It is always important to consult with the appropriate professional on financial, medical, legal, behavioural or other issues. As you read this information, it is your responsibility to make sure that the facts and ideas apply to your situation.