When a child experiences trauma, their age and level of maturity can influence how they react. Some children find it hard to understand their feelings and struggle to verbalise them. Despite the difference in their ability to describe what they are experiencing, children can be affected by the same range of reactions an adult experiences following a traumatic event.
A child’s age impacts the way they express their distress and what they may need to recover. There are some signs to look out for in children who may be having difficulties, but these do not necessarily lead to long-term problems. Most are normal and will resolve in time with the help of caring family members and friends.
Some of the signs to watch for include:
• Reliving the trauma through dreams, play, and preoccupation with traumatic events
• Distress when reminded of the traumatic event
• Disorganised or agitated behaviour
• Avoiding reminders
• Withdrawal from people
• Losing interest in significant activities
• Over alert – hypervigilance
• Sleep trouble
• Unusually clingy
• Physical discomfort
• Changes in behaviour, e.g. regression
How to help
It’s important to recognise that the child’s behaviour may be a response to the trauma. Reassure the child that they are safe. Have open, honest communication about the experience, including both talking and listening. Give the child special attention and allow them to express their emotions. Offer comfort when they are distressed. Correct any misunderstandings or unwarranted fears.
Give clear, honest information in an age-appropriate way. Encourage enjoyable activities and have quality family time together. Maintain routine where possible. Using creative practices such as drawing or writing about the experience helps children to understand and process their feelings. Using play for young children is another way to help them communicate and process what they are feeling. Normalise any emotions they experience.
When to get professional help
If the reactions described in this post are severe or continue for an extended period, the child could be experiencing a more serious reaction and may need professional help. Contacting a health practitioner is also recommended if a child is experiencing the following:
• Severe and continued sleep disturbance
• Severe anxiety when separated from loved ones
• Continued fears about things that may remind the child of the trauma
• Behaviour problems at home or school
• Self-doubts, withdrawal or other significant changes in emotions or personality
• A return to ‘babyish’ behaviour that the child had outgrown
• Intense and ongoing emotional upset
• Substance use, dangerous or risk-taking behaviours.
We offer free state-wide professional counselling to people impacted by road trauma. To make an appointment, call 1300 367 797
Guides for dealing with road trauma
Our specialised guides dealing with the impact of road trauma provide additional information and support and provide some tools that can help you and others cope after a road crash.