Helping a Child Manage Fears after a Traumatic Event

Children of all ages may have strong reactions to traumatic events such as shootings, fires, plane crashes, or other violent crimes. Even children who are generally happy and well-adjusted may find such tragedies confusing or frightening, whether they have been directly involved or have heard about them from their friends or the media.

Because traumatic events are part of life, you can’t protect children from ever hearing about them. But you can take steps to help them manage their feelings. These steps include understanding their fears, offering reassurance, and providing routines that will help them feel loved and secure.

Understanding your child’s fears

After a traumatic event, children may have many of the same fears that adults do. They may begin to form their own ideas about what happened (which may include more fear based reasoning). For example, many young children have trouble telling the difference between fantasy and reality. So even if they hear that firefighters put out a serious fire, they may think that it could start up again. Or they may believe that an event that occurred long ago or far away actually happened recently and close to home.

The importance of security and routines

Children always benefit from having a strong sense of security that includes predictable routines. These routines are especially important after a traumatic event, when you’ll need to do as much as you can to reduce disruptions and reassure your child. It’s a good idea to do the following:

Reassure your child that you are there to protect him or her, and that your family is safe.
Provide extra physical reassurance. Hugging, sitting close to read a book, and giving backrubs can help restore a child’s sense of safety.
Give your child a comforting toy or something of yours to keep — a scarf, a photograph, or a note from you. Your child may be afraid of separating from you, and keeping a reminder of you close by can help.
Be available as much as you can for talking with and comforting your child.
If your child’s daily routine has been interrupted, let him or her know that this is only temporary. (You will probably need to repeat this many times to a preschooler or other young child.)

Helping your child

You can comfort and reassure your child by communicating openly and sensitively about what happened.

Ask your child what he or she thinks has happened. If there are any misconceptions, now is a chance to clear them up. If your child knows upsetting details that are true, don’t deny them. Instead, listen closely and talk about your child’s fears.
Help your child talk about the event. Try to listen carefully and understand what he or she really wants to say. Help younger children use words like “angry” and “sad” for their feelings.
Be aware of your own reaction to a traumatic event. Younger children may be unsettled by a parent’s strong reaction to a traumatic event. Remember that children often pick up on nonverbal behavior.
Be patient when your child asks the same question many times. Asking the same question over and over is one way that children “test” what they have heard to find out if it’s really true. Try to be consistent with answers and information.
Ask your child to draw pictures of what happened, and talk about the pictures. Drawing pictures can be a good way to help children express feelings that are hard to describe.
Encourage a young child to act out his or her feelings with toys or puppets. Don’t be alarmed if he or she expresses angry or violent emotions. Instead, use play-acting to begin a conversation about your child’s worries and fears.
Be honest about your own feelings, but talk with other adults if you feel very anxious and afraid of how you’ll cope.
Consider your child’s age and maturity in making decisions about media exposure. It’s generally best to shield very young children from graphic details and pictures in the media because they may not understand these and feel more afraid if they see them.
Watch the news with older children. In most families, it isn’t realistic to shield older children and teenagers from the news. Even if you turn off the television, they may hear the news from friends or read about it on the Internet. It’s usually more practical to watch the news with them, talk about what you see, and reassure them that you will protect them.

Common reactions

Here are some common reactions associated with traumatic events and ways to help your child deal with them:

Regressing. Many children may try to return to an earlier stage when they felt safer and more cared for. Younger children may wet the bed or want a bottle; older children may fear being alone or start using “baby talk.” It’s important to be patient and comforting if your child responds this way.
Thinking the event is their fault. Younger children tend to think that if something goes wrong, it must be their fault – no matter how irrational this may sound to an adult. Be sure to tell children they are not to blame.
Developing sleep disorders. Some children have difficulty going to sleep while others wake frequently or have troubling dreams. If you can, give your child a stuffed animal, soft blanket, or flashlight to take to bed. Try spending extra time together in the evening, doing quiet activities or reading.
Feeling helpless. Powerlessness is painful for both adults and children. You and your family may feel more hope and control if you take steps to help people who have suffered because of an event – for example, by taking up a collection, organizing a fund-raiser, or donating helpful items to a family that needs them after a trauma.

If your child’s fears continue

Sometimes a child’s fears last long after a traumatic event or interfere with the enjoyment of everyday life; you may need professional help to support him or her feel better. Talk with a doctor if your child exhibits the following symptoms that don’t go away after a number of weeks:

  • Troubled sleep or frequent nightmares
  • Bedwetting (that was not seen previously)
  • Fear of going to school, going outside, or being left alone
  • Thumb sucking, nail biting (that was not seen previously)
  • Unusual quietness, unresponsiveness, or tiredness
  • Somatic complaings (upset stomachs, tummy aches, with no valid reason) If this case, many children use this as a way to express the need for extra attention, compassion or perhaps to avoid going to school.
  • Unusual agitation or aggression
  • Excessive clinging
↑ Top of Page