Whether a child has personally
experienced trauma or has merely seen the event on television or
heard it discussed by adults, it is important for parents and
teachers to be informed and ready to help if reactions to stress
begin to occur.
Children respond to trauma in many different ways. Some may have
reactions very soon after the event; others may seem to be doing
fine for weeks or months, then begin to show worrisome behavior.
Knowing the signs that are common at different ages can help parents
and teachers to recognize problems and respond appropriately.
Children from 1 to 5 years of age find it particularly hard to
adjust to change and loss. In addition, these youngsters have not
yet developed their own coping skills, so they must depend on
parents, family members and teachers to help them through difficult
Very young children may regress to an earlier behavioral stage
after a traumatic event. For example, preschoolers may resume
thumb-sucking or bed-wetting or may become afraid of strangers,
animals, darkness or "monsters." They may cling to a parent or
teacher or become very attached to a place where they feel safe.
Changes in eating and sleeping habits are common, as are
unexplainable aches and pains. Other symptoms to watch for are
disobedience, hyperactivity, speech difficulties, and aggressive or
withdrawn behavior. Preschoolers may tell exaggerated stories about
the traumatic event or may speak of it over and over.
Children age 5 to 11 may have some of the same reactions as
younger boys and girls. In addition, they may withdraw from play
groups and friends, compete more for the attention of parents, fear
going to school, allow school performance to drop, become aggressive
or find it hard to concentrate. These children may also return to
"more childish" behaviors; for example, they may ask to be fed or
Children 12 to 14 are likely to have vague physical complaints
when under stress and may abandon chores, schoolwork and other
responsibilities they previously handled. While on the one hand they
may compete vigorously for attention from parents and teachers, they
may also withdraw, resist authority, become disruptive at home or in
the classroom, or even begin to experiment with high-risk behaviors
such as drinking or drug abuse.
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These young people are at a developmental stage in which the opinions of others
are very important. They need to be thought of as "normal" by their friends and
are less concerned about relating well with adults or participating in
recreation or family activities they once enjoyed.
In later adolescence, teens may experience feelings of helplessness and guilt
because they are unable to assume full adult responsibilities as the community
responds to the disaster. Older teens may also deny the extent of their
emotional reactions to the traumatic event.
How to help
Reassurance is the key to helping children through a traumatic
time. Very young children need a lot of cuddling, as well as verbal
support. Answer questions about the disaster honestly, but donít
dwell on frightening details or allow the subject to dominate family
or classroom time indefinitely. Encourage children of all ages to
express emotions through conversation, drawing or painting and to
find a way to help others who were affected by the disaster.
Try to maintain a normal household or classroom routine, and
encourage children to participate in recreational activity. Reduce
your expectations temporarily about performance in school or at
home, perhaps by substituting less demanding responsibilities for
Finally, acknowledge that you, too, may have reactions associated
with the traumatic event, and take steps to promote your own
physical and emotional healing.
Mental Health Information Center]
Note: Information based on brochure
developed by Project Heartland -- A Project of the Oklahoma
Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services in response
to the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
Project Heartland was developed with funds from the Federal
Emergency Management Agency in consultation with the Federal Center
for Mental Health Services.