Helping kids deal with emotional trauma
- Emotional trauma can be caused by one-off events or things that happen many times.
- The effects of emotional trauma can range from mild to severe.
- The earlier you act on signs of emotional trauma, the better.
- You can make a real difference to your child’s health and wellbeing and help them recover.
Realising your child is upset or struggling emotionally is difficult for any parent. If you think your child has experienced something traumatic, it can be difficult to know how to help. This article can help you:
- recognise some of the signs of trauma
- support your child
- find more help if you need it
What causes emotional trauma?
Emotional trauma can be caused by both:
- one-off events like a bushfire or car accident
- 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
- their personality
How will I know if my child has suffered emotional trauma?
Some things to look out for include:
- behaviour problems
- personality changes
- 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- suddenly becoming quiet and withdrawn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 trauma and behaviours such as tantrums and hyperactivity. 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 range from mild to severe. You child’s emotional trauma might upset them for a few days and pass relatively quickly. More severe emotional trauma can have deeper, more lasting effects on a child’s:
- communication skills
Severe trauma can also impact how they react to situations as they get older.
As well as older children and adults, trauma can affect:
- young children
They will need just as much support.
Emotional trauma is different from grief. Grief is a normal reaction to events. However, grief can lead to emotional trauma if:
- children are unable to process their feelings safely
- 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 will my child recover?
There are different levels of trauma, and each child’s experience may be different. How your child recovers from their emotional trauma can be influenced by:
- the nature and length of their traumatic experience
- their age
- their developmental skills
- their support network
How do I support my child?
The earlier you act on signs of emotional trauma, the better. Your child sees you as: bigger, stronger, wiser, and kinder. It is important that your child knows that they can rely on you. Reassure them that you love them and will care for them no matter what.
Help your child process their feelings. Let them express their feelings through play. You can help explain their experience to them in language they can understand. Let them know that it is okay to be emotional and that you believe them.
There are lots of ways you can help your child feel safe. Try to keep up regular, familiar routines. At the same time, you should be understanding and flexible to your child’s needs and emotions. This creates a sense of family togetherness and safety.
Avoid long periods of time away from your child if you can. If you are separated, keep in touch by: phone, text, video chat or email.
You know and understand your child better than anyone. You can make a real difference to your child’s health and wellbeing and help them recover.
Building a support network
It’s important to maintain strong, supportive relationships in your child’s life. Help them build positive relationships with the important people in their life besides yourself. These may include:
- their teachers
- their friends
- other family members
Strong relationships will help your child feel safe and help their recovery. They also help your child to see how others react to situations and understand that they are not alone.
Know what support services are available at your child’s school. Let them know what is going on.
Taking care of yourself
Don’t forget to take care of your own wellbeing. Your physical and mental health is important, and if you are struggling it will also impact your child.
You can talk to your doctor or someone you trust if you’re finding things difficult. Don’t hesitate to seek support.
Your child may need more from you physically and emotionally at this time. This may make you feel more stretched and tired than usual. Try to find time to do some pleasurable activities. You can also try relaxation or breathing exercises if you are feeling overwhelmed.
Getting professional support
If you are concerned about your child, you can take them to your doctor. They can assess their mental health and monitor their progress.
You can also talk to your doctor about seeing a psychologist, counsellor, or other specialist support service. Specialists can also support you to manage any challenging new behaviours from your child.
Some other reasons to seek professional help are if:
- your child still seems unsettled after a couple weeks
- your child’s trauma seems worse after a couple weeks
- you observe new concerns in your child
- you are having difficulty managing your child’s trauma
- your child’s family or home environment is stressful
Other services for both you and your child include:
- Lifeline Australia — 13 11 14
- Beyond Blue — 1300 22 4636
- Parentline NSW — 1300 1300 52 — for parents and carers in New South Wales
- Parentline — 1300 30 1300 — for parents and carers in Queensland and the Northern Territory
- Kids Helpline — 1800 55 1800
- Trauma & Grief Network
Speak to a maternal child health nurse
Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.
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Last reviewed: October 2022