Until now, research in children's crisis reactions has been limited. The diagnosis of post-traumatic stress is not adapted to children's expression because it requires the person who has experienced the trauma, to be able to describe their symptoms. In recent years, a number of researchers, have focused on the development of assessment tools which increasingly rely on symptoms that are observable for parents and professionals. The National Centre of Psychotraumatology has developed a tool for examining children down to the age of six hrough cartoon-like images. This gives the children a chance to express their symptoms.
Below, you can read about normal crisis reactions in 7-12-year-old children.
The reactions depend on the child's age, stage of development, and the traumatic incident – it is, therefore, possible that reactions that are no listed below may occur, just as the child does not necessarily have all the reactions. The focus is on reactions that can be observed by parents and other adults close to the child.
Fear of separation
In the time following the event, children can experience fear of being separated from their parents. Children have a need for being protected by their parents, in case something new happens. They try to avoid reliving the horrible feeling of being lost that was triggered by the traumatic event. The child may temporarily protest going to school.
Act more dependent
When children feel helpless, sad and unsafe, they often behave as if they are younger then they are, as a way of asking for more parental care. If the child resumes behaviour that it had otherwise outgrown, it may thus be a sign that it needs extra care and closeness. The child, who might just recently have started biking to school by him/herself, may e.g. suddenly want dad to go with it. Or the child may insist on the mother sitting by its side until it falls asleep, or it may even start wetting the bed.
Children are good at taking 'time off' from the pain and play as usual, but as they get older, there is a greater risk of them suddenly feeling guilty about having fun. Slightly older children may, therefore, become sad because they had momentarily forgotten all about the incident. The child is easily frustrated or irritable, and there may be violent outbursts of anger. Therefore, it is not uncommon to experience a period with many conflicts and that the child e.g. comes home one day and announces that he or she no longer wants to play with their friends.
Traumatised children’s play or drawings can be temporarily affected by the incident; the child will typically play out violent scenes or become preoccupied with death and disaster as a theme. This is normal and the child's way of processing the event.
Problems at school
Disturbing thoughts and images can make it difficult for the child to concentrate in school. Memory problems, fatigue and absent-minded behaviour are also common reactions.
Some children retire into themselves and seem distant, become quiet, depressed or emotionally flat. The child may also lose interest in activities he or she used to enjoy. The reaction can be an expression of the child hurting, but it can also be a defence mechanism against feeling the emotional pain that he or she is feeling.
Some children may feel different and alien to their friends' carefree existence. This feeling is worsened if the classmates do not dare to ask about what has happened, hence ignoring the situation. It can be very lonely, and the child can become isolated.
The child may start to worry about things that children normally do not think about. Concerns may be expressed in many ways; the child might ask some direct questions about death, talk a lot about all kinds of accidents that can happen e.g. when dad drives to work, or start worrying about things, he or she has seen on the news. Concerns may also be expressed more indirectly through e.g. overprotective behaviour towards younger siblings or separation anxiety.
Many children's anxieties and worries transform into stomach- or headaches. These symptoms may thus be signs that the child has a lot of difficult emotions and thoughts that feel like 'knots' in the stomach or as tension in the neck. Pain and separation anxiety can cause the child to refuse to go to school.
Sleep problems are very common after a traumatic event. The child has a strong need for security, and having to sleep alone can be very anxiety-provoking. Thoughts and scenes from the event may begin to show up when the child is lying in semi darkness. Nightmares are also common.
NOTE: Pay attention if you have a daughter, as girls often have more post-traumatic stress symptoms than boys. Girls who become introverted, sad, and quiet, are not as visible as the boys who become externalised and aggressive - but they have it just as hard.
How can I help my child?
- Be sure to create some quiet moments where you are present mentally as well as physically - it gives the child the opportunity to talk about the incident and ask some of the questions that are on their minds. If the child feels neglected, he or she keeps their thoughts to themselves.
- Talk about the incident again and again. Help your child sort out the sequence of events and verbalise their feelings. Answer the questions as honestly as possible, but protect the child from the bloody and uncomfortable details.
- Pay special attention to whether the child relives the incident as a kind of inner film, that runs on repeat. Help the child express these disturbing scenes through drawing, play and conversation.
- Be aware of whether the child carries around feelings of guilt or 'adult concerns' such as climate change or the bad economy. Help the child understand that it is not responsible for these things and that they can feel assured that the adults will take care of it. Repeat these assurances many times. Keep a close eye on what the child sees on television, shield it from the news and scary movies.
- Create cozy moments, so the child can get the feeling that life is good again. Let the child sit and cuddle up to you if it wants.
- Children who are affected by traumatic events are often frightened that something will happen to their parents or siblings. Be punctual, uphold agreements and let the child or a teacher know if you are delayed in picking them up from school.
- Be patient and slack on the requirements if your child has many mood swings.
- It may also be beneficial to talk to the child about what you can do to prevent new accidents from happening etc. For example, by letting the child help set up smoke detectors in the house or similar sensible actions.
- Talk to the teachers about how your child is doing in school, and collaborate with the school to solve any problems.
- Consult the school's psychologist.
Help the child through slow acclimatisation - Children who become panic-stricken by something that reminds them of the event need help to overcome the anxiety. This is done one small step at a time through slow familiarisation. Hold the child's hand as you slowly approach 'the dangerous'. Respect the child's boundaries, but don't completely avoid things that cause anxiety. Act calmly to signal to the child that there is no longer any danger. A psychologist can help with some suitable exercises.
Seek help if:
Seek help if the child, after a longer period of time:
- Does not return to his or her old self, but behaves atypically.
- Seems sad, distant, uninterested in playing, is silent and difficult to get to smile.
- Has many conflicts with its parents, teachers or peers.
- Behaves aggressively and has violent outbursts of anger.
- Has difficulty concentrating in school.
- Is anxious and depressed.
- Is serious and worried.
- Have nightmares and sleep problems.
This page has been created with inspiration from:
- Red Barnet - Save the Children
- U.S. Department of State - Children's Reaction to Trauma
- New York State Education Department - Crisis Counseling Guide
- National Organization for Victim Assistance - Reactions of Children and Adolescents to Trauma
- Centre for Trauma and Torture Survivors Region of Southern Denmark