Research into children's crisis reactions has so far been limited. The diagnosis of post-traumatic stress is not adapted to the way children express themselves, as it requires the crisis victim to be able to describe their symptoms. In recent years, however, a number of researchers have focused on the development of assessment tools that rely more heavily on symptoms that are observable to parents and professionals. The Psychotraumatological Research Unit has also developed a tool for children as young as 6 years old, which uses cartoon-like images to enable children to express their symptoms.
Below you can read about the normal crisis reactions of 0-2-year-old children.
The reactions depend on the child's age, stage of development and the traumatic event - there may therefore be reactions that are not mentioned in the overview below, and the child may not necessarily have all reactions. Emphasis is placed on reactions that can be observed by parents and other adults who are close to the child.
When a young child experiences a violent event, they instinctively react with crying and fear. It's not uncommon for the child to freeze in fear - it's their shock reaction to being trapped in a dangerous situation (Marx et al., 2008). Although it may seem frightening, it is a normal reaction that is temporary.
The toddler's understanding of the situation is very limited; they can orientate themselves to the sensory cues (a loud noise, a hard jerk of the car, a strong smell of smoke, pain, etc.) that signal danger and the reaction of their parents.
Young children rely heavily on their parents' facial expressions and body language. Note that the child cannot yet separate their own emotions from the emotions of others - if the parents are scared, the child will be scared too.
In the aftermath of the incident, the infant will typically:
- be irritable, crying and/or aggressive.
- need a lot of physical closeness, e.g. crying if not held.
- change eating habits/appetite.
- change in sleep rhythm and/or difficulty falling asleep, waking up more frequently at night.
- appear nervous, be on guard and easily startled.
- protest against things they used to like, such as being cuddled, lying on their back, being bathed, etc.
- take a step back in development, e.g. stop rolling or stop crawling.
The slightly older child typically reacts:
- by clinging to parents, crying or whining often.
- throw tantrums and/or hit, pinch and bite.
- change eating habits/appetite.
- Change in sleep rhythm, some refuse to sleep, have nightmares or wake up frequently during the night.
- Return to behaviours they had outgrown or become accustomed to, e.g. thumb sucking, crying for a bottle or breast, speaking baby language, etc.
- Be unfocussed and restless in their play.
- Be defiant and protest against things they used to like, such as brushing their teeth, showering, etc.
The child will often become very anxious when reliving sights, sounds, smells or bodily sensations that they experienced in the situation.
For example, a child who has been involved in a car accident may protest violently when put in a car seat or strapped into a pram.
Sometimes the anxiety is specific, sometimes it's generalised.
When should you seek help?
Most young children who are otherwise safe, happy children will recover from a single traumatic event. However, for some, the after-effects can be long-lasting, so seek professional counselling or treatment if the child hasn't improved significantly within a month.
If your child seems sad, distant, uninterested in playing, is silent and difficult to make smile, you should contact your doctor, health visitor or municipality and ask for professional help from a child psychologist.
Young children can't yet put their feelings and memories into words, so it's especially important to listen to your gut instinct if you feel your child is unhappy.
NOTE: Is your child older than 2 years? See the next age step here.
This page has been created with inspiration from:
- Red Barnet - English: Save the Children
- U.S. Department of State - Children´s Reaction to Trauma.
- New York State Education Department - Crisis Counseling Guide
- National Organisation for Victim Assistance - Reactions of Children and Adolescents to Trauma.
- Center for Traume- og Torturoverlevere Region Syddanmark - Centre for Trauma and Torture Survivors in the Region of Southern Denmark