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Helping kids after a traumatic experience

If your child or teenager (or a child or teenager in your care) has been through a traumatic experience, there is a lot you can do to help.

A parent’s own coping style and mental wellbeing can have a big influence on how well a child or teenager recovers from a traumatic event. As a parent, it is therefore very important to look after yourself first and seek help as early as possible if you are finding it hard to cope. If you find that your child is still having problems four weeks after the traumatic event, it is time to seek professional support for them.

Strategies to try

Children’s reactions to trauma can often be misunderstood as ‘difficult’ or, naughty’ behaviour. It’s normal to find this frustrating, but expressing anger, or blaming the child for this behaviour might make things worse. Instead, try the following:

  • Reassure the child that he or she is safe and cared for.
  • Listen and talk to the child about the trauma. Like adults, children and teens often find what they don’t know to be more frightening than the reality.
  • Give the child special attention; for younger children, prioritize attention at bedtime.
  • Encourage the child to express their emotions—this is part of the healing process, and can happen through a variety of creative ways, like drawing.
  • Enjoy activities together as a family.
  • Keep family roles clear—don’t expect children or teens to take on too much responsibility, but don’t become over- protective either. Try to understand if they can’t do what is usually expected of them, like going to school, but talk about how they will get back to their normal routine as soon as possible.

How and where do I get support?

If you have concerns about your child’s recovery, the first thing you should do is set aside some time to talk to them about how they are feeling. Encourage them to talk openly about how they have been feeling since the traumatic event. Try to get an idea about any worries they may have or difficulties they are experiencing. Provide comfort and support and let them know that lots of people struggle with unwanted thoughts, feelings and memories after a traumatic event. But also let them know that you are there for them, and that there is extra help available.

If you feel your youngster is not improving after using some of the strategies discussed here, or if they are having problems managing their feelings, getting along with others or doing their daily activities, talk to a GP. They may or may not be concerned about the trauma itself—sometimes children and teenagers find it easier to talk about other difficulties, rather than focus on the trauma itself.

If your GP is concerned that your child may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or another trauma- related problem, he or she can arrange for a referral to a child and adolescent counsellor who specializes in helping children and teenagers who have been affected by a traumatic event.

Usually the counsellor will begin with a careful assessment of your child’s behaviour and emotions. This will involve speaking to you and your child, and perhaps other family members, as well as your child’s teachers.

The counsellor will also want to know how other family members are coping. The counsellor should explain the diagnosis and the treatment options available to you and your child in words that you both understand, so that you are informed about how and why a treatment can work, and feel ready to participate in it.

Phoenix Australia is an internationally recognized leader in trauma related mental health and wellbeing. Its experts are committed to advancing evidence informed practice and treatment to improve outcomes for individuals, families and communities.

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