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Help & Advice

Coping with a Traumatic Event

Help for parents of children and adolescents who have experienced a traumatic event

Road traffic accidents, falls, or other situations that lead to serious injuries can cause a traumatic stress reaction. These reactions can affect the way we feel, think and behave.

What are the typical signs of traumatic stress?

Children and adolescents can react to traumatic situations in many different ways. These reactions might not show for a few days or even weeks. However, typical reactions that children or adolescents may experience following a trauma experience can include:

  • Distress about the incident
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Bad dreams
  • Anxiety about being away from people they are close to
  • Preoccupation with thoughts and memories of the event
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches.
These symptoms are to be expected and are normal reactions to traumatic events. With the support of people around them, children and adolescents usually recover from these symptoms within a few weeks and return to normal life.

When a traumatic event occurs, a child or adolescent needs to emotionally process what has happened. It is useful for a parent or carer to be available to help them make sense of their feelings about what has happened. Some children prefer talking about the event with the support of someone close. They may also need support in re-establishing the routines of normal life.

Ways to help a child or adolescent make sense of a trauma, and not feel overwhelmed by it, include drawings of the event or re-enacting what happened through a game.

For some children and adolescents, it might be too soon to talk about the event and it is not helpful to force them to talk. If the parent has also been involved in the traumatic event, it might be more difficult for them to be able to help their child with their distress. In these cases, it might help for the adult to have their own support in managing their feelings about what has happened, so they are more able to help the child.

Longer lasting effects

Sometimes children and adolescents can find it much harder to return to normal life. This can happen when the traumatic experience was so bad that the child or adolescent was, or perceived they were, in danger of being killed or seriously injured. If the child or adolescent felt horrified, helpless and terrified at the time, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can develop. Typical symptoms of PTSD can include:

  • Flashbacks. This refers to the event being replayed in memory through any of the senses
  • Deliberate avoidance of thoughts, feelings, or places associated with the event
  • Bad dreams or nightmares
  • Being easily startled by the slightest noise
  • Changes in temperament such as high levels of irritability and anger or sudden mood swings
  • Changes in behaviour such as inability to cope with routine activities, increased risky behaviour or high levels of strange and erratic behaviours.

These reactions can go on for months and can seriously interfere with daily living. Psychological treatment has been shown to be very effective for treating symptoms of PTSD.

Getting help

You should consult your GP if:

  • You are concerned your child's upset feelings seem to be getting worse
  • Symptoms of PTSD continue for longer than a month
  • The worries are preventing you, your child or your family getting on with everyday life
  • If the problems persist, your GP might suggest extra support from your local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service

Further information and advice

Victim Support - helping people to cope with crime. Solihull Victim Support 0121 745 7400/ 0845 303 0900.

The Samaritans provide a 24-hour service offering confidential, emotional support to anyone in crisis. Helpline 08457 909090, website: www.samaritans.org.uk

Solihull Bereavement Counselling Service - helping people who have been bereaved, 0121 424 5103

National Institute for Clinical Excellence. www.nice.org.uk for information on interventions for PTSD.