Realising your child is upset or struggling is difficult for any parent. If you think your child has experienced something traumatic, it can be difficult to know how to help them. This article can help you recognise some of the signs of trauma, how to help your child, and where to find more help if you need it.
What causes emotional trauma?
A one-off event like a bushfire or car accident can cause trauma. So can something that has happened to a child over time, like abuse or bullying. It can be difficult for kids to know how to understand or manage events like these. Traumatic events can change the way kids act and the things they say. It can be very difficult for them to move past the event.
How your child reacts to trauma will depend on a lot of things, like their age, events in their earlier life, how much support they receive from family and friends, and their personality.
How will I know if my child has suffered emotional trauma?
Some things to look out for include:
- behaviour problems
- re-enacting the trauma
- suddenly becoming quiet and withdrawn
- being clingier or having nightmares
- sucking their thumb again, wetting the bed or suddenly becoming afraid of the dark
- frightening easily or crying for no apparent reason
- difficulty falling asleep
It can be difficult to tell the difference between behavioural problems, like tantrums and hyperactivity, and trauma. If you’re worried, it’s best to check with a professional such as your doctor or a maternal child health nurse.
The effects of emotional trauma
The effects of emotional trauma can be mild or they can be severe. Mild emotional trauma might upset your child for a few days and pass relatively quickly. More severe emotional trauma can have deeper, more lasting effects on a child’s health, relationships, communication skills and how they react to situations as they get older. It can affect young children, babies and toddlers just as much as older children and adults, and they will need just as much support.
Emotional trauma is different from grief. Grief is a normal reaction to events. Grief can lead to emotional trauma if children are unable to process their feelings, or if there was something about the event that was traumatic. In these cases, your child may show signs of emotional trauma as well as grief.
How to support your child
The earlier you act on signs of emotional trauma, the better. Your child sees you as bigger, stronger, wiser and kinder, and it can really help your child to know they can rely on you. Reassure them that, no matter what, you love them and will care for them.
There are lots of ways you can help your child feel safe. Keeping up regular routines, being understanding and flexible to your child’s needs and emotions all create a sense of family togetherness and safety. Stay with your child and avoid being away for long, if you can. If you are separated, keep in touch by phone, Skype or email.
Also, don’t forget to take care of your own wellbeing. Talk to someone you trust or try some relaxation or breathing exercises if you’re finding things difficult. Your child may need more from you physically and emotionally at this time, and you may feel more stretched and tired than usual. It’s important to take care of yourself as well as your child.
If your child still seems unsettled in a week or 2, or if the emotional trauma seems to be getting worse, it might be time to seek professional help. Professionals can also help if you notice new reactions from you child or it’s difficult to manage their behaviour.
You know and understand your child better than anyone. You can make a real difference to your child’s health and wellbeing, and to help them recover.
Talk to your doctor about seeing a psychologist, counsellor or other specialist support service.
Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436 to speak to a maternal child health nurse. Other services include:
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Last reviewed: July 2020