Talking With Children of Different Ages After a Traumatic Event

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Children and youth of all ages can be affected in the aftermath of a traumatic event. Whether they were directly affected by the event or have just been exposed to it on TV or the internet, they may often find it difficult to cope with their emotions, particularly if they have never been exposed to these types of feelings and images before.  While it is natural for children and youth to react differently to trauma than adults do, it is important to recognize that the child’s age can have an impact on their reaction as well.  Below are some helpful tips on how to talk to children of different age groups in the aftermath of a traumatic event or disaster.

Preschool Children – Ages 5 and under

Mom comforting youth boy

  • Infants and Toddlers ages 0-2 years – Children in this age group cannot understand that a trauma is happening, but they can recognize that their caregiver is upset about something. They may express the same emotions as their caregiver or may show different behavior such as crying for no reason and withdrawing from people and playing with toys.
  • Children ages 3-5 years – Children in this age group can understand the effects of a trauma and may have trouble adjusting to change and loss. They will often depend on the adults around them to make them feel better and safe.
  • In the event of a trauma, give children in this age group verbal support and cuddling. Take a deep breath before picking them up or holding them and use a calm, gentle voice when speaking to them. Assure them that they are still cared for and that you will continue to make them feel safe.

Early Childhood to Adolescence – Ages 6-19

Mom talking with adolescent son

  • Children ages 6-10 – Children in this age group often crave more attention from their caregivers in the aftermath of a trauma. They may fear going to school and stop spending time with friends, and may become aggressive for no reason and perform poorly in school.
  • Youth and adolescents ages 11-19 – During this development stage, youth and adolescents are already going through many physical and emotional changes, so it may become even more difficult for them to cope with a trauma.  Older teens may deny their reactions to themselves and their caregivers and not admit to something being wrong. Some may start arguments at home or at school and begin to resist structure. They also may engage in risky behaviors such as using alcohol or drugs.
  • Though this age group has a wide range, there are many things you can do to help nurture children and youth coping with the aftermath of a trauma. Offer comfort with gentle words and a hug when needed, and spend more time with your child if it seems like they need companionship. Encourage children to participate in recreational activities so they can move
    around and play with others and get back to the routine of everyday life.   For youth and adolescents in particular, ask them what they know about the event and try to watch news coverage on TV or the internet with them to ensure they are getting correct and valid information. Allow them to ask questions about what is happening and assure them that they are safe and supported.

In some instances, a child may have trouble getting past a trauma.  Turn to a professional if you feel that your child needs another person to talk to in order to get through their feelings and emotions.  Robins’ Nest Counseling & Wellness Centers have experienced staff trained in working with these special circumstances.  To learn more, visit our Services page or call us at 833-444-NEST (6378) to make an appointment.

Resources:
https://store.samhsa.gov/shin/content/SMA11-DISASTER/SMA11-DISASTER-09.pdf

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