Helping Children after a Major Trauma

A disaster is a terrifying experience for a child, and children tend to have some commonly experienced fears that linger after the event. With the support and care of the family and community, most children start feeling better in time without the need for professional assistance, but some children will experience childhood PTSD and will need to get help. Because of this, it’s important that you be able to recognize the difference between a normal reaction to a traumatic event, and a stress disorder reaction.

After a major trauma, children often worry:

  1. That the event will reoccur
  2. That someone they love will die or get hurt
  3. That they will be separated from family and left alone

Parents can help children overcome feelings of fear and worry (and the behavioral consequences of this anxiety) by:1

  • Encouraging children to follow normal routines and by limiting their exposure to news reports of the disaster
  • Talking openly and honestly about what happened, in language kids can understand, and explaining the steps you’ve taken to ensure the family’s safety in the future
  • Making sure that children’s physical needs are attended to
  • Spending extra time with your children
  • Letting children help with the rebuilding and recovery effort, as they are able to
  • Maintaining expectations for appropriate behaviors and the following of family rules

Children are resilient and most kids will recover well in time. Some kids, however, are at risk of PTSD and other trauma caused mental illnesses, just as adults are. Children with PTSD will need professional help to ensure a full and happy recovery.

Consider a professional evaluation should you see symptoms of childhood PTSD that endure beyond 6 weeks. Some symptoms of childhood PTSD include:2

  • Regressing to earlier stage behaviors
  • Clinging to family
  • Sleeping problems, such as bedwetting or nightmares
  • Disruptive behaviors
  • An inability to concentrate
  • Physical aches and pains without an obvious cause
  • Others
Children with PTSD respond well to cognitive behavioral therapy.

Comforting a Loved One Affected by a Disaster

Watching the TV news and worrying about friends and family immersed in the tragedy of a far-away disaster feels terrible.

When a person we love worries painfully about distant friends and family affected by a disaster, it can be hard to know what to say or do to ease the heartache.

Here’s what you can do to help:

  • Be there to listen and offer your companionship. Know that you don’t need to have all the answers.
  • Be patient with displays of irritability and other negative emotions
  • Encourage good meals, sleep and exercise
  • Pry your loved one away from the TV news and the internet, if you can

Dealing with Grief after a Disaster

Unfortunately, bereavement often comes as a sad piece of disaster’s aftermath.

Grief is a difficult but necessary process that eventually helps us come to terms with loss. In some cases, people can become mired in intense or overly lengthy grieving, a condition called complicated grief or traumatic grieving.

People who experience the sudden, violent or unexpected death of a loved one may be at greater risk of complicated grief or intense grieving that triggers another mental illness. Due to this increased risk of problematic grieving, it is helpful for friends and family of those grieving a loved one lost to disaster to learn the signs and symptoms of complicated grief, and to be ready to intervene, if warranted.

Some of the warning signs of complicated grieving include:

  • Feeling stuck in the grieving process
  • Experiencing very intense and long lasting grief
  • Feeling distrustful of others
  • Maintaining a fantasy relationship with a deceased loved one
  • Hearing the deceased’s voice or seeing him or her
  • Feeling desperate loneliness and longing
  • Social isolation
  • Others

Please read dealing with grief after a disaster, for more on complicated grieving.

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Page last updated Feb 22, 2011

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