Parents generally know their children well enough to recognize when an indication is outside the child’s normal behavior. There are some common reactions that children will display. After a stressful event, watch for withdrawal, fearfulness, irritability, excessive shyness, clinging, emotional outbursts, aggression toward other children, hurting animals or other forms of acting out. Other indications include nightmares, bedwetting, thrashing in bed or difficulty falling asleep. Becoming too easily startled or regressive behaviors such as thumb sucking may also be observed.
Physical symptoms are also common, and these include tummy and headaches, fever, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or constipation. Over time, the child may even develop avoidance behaviors. These include specific phobias, such as the fear of dogs if the child has been bitten, or general phobias, such as a phobia about going to school.
Children are extraordinarily sensitive to the body language of adults, but as parents we are usually feeling a mix of emotions ourselves after our child has been injured or we have been exposed to a traumatic event. Our instincts are screaming out to us that we should have been protecting the child from harm. Unfortunately, if you are exhibiting signs of anxiety or panic, you’re going to be sending out all the wrong signals to your child.
If you are able to stay relatively calm, however, your child will also calm down. So it is important that you move through your own shock, fear or anxiety first, since your goal is to support your child rather than “infect” him or her with your emotions. Allowing time for your own bodily responses to settle rather than scolding or running anxiously towards your child is your first response as a parent.
A parent suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder can also be a trigger for a child to develop a traumatized response; in fact, a child may even react more strongly to trauma because adults around them have done so, especially parents because they’re so attuned to them
Giving comfort to one’s child comes naturally to a parent, but patience is critical. We have to allow children to work through the “bad feelings.” And if that means letting them cry, so be it. Children need lots of reassurance. It is important to be there for them and to tell them that everything is going to be okay. Let them know that the powerful emotions they are experiencing, such as anger, rage, sadness or fear, are perfectly normal under the circumstances.
Patience and pacing gives your child permission to be authentic, no matter what they are experiencing. This acceptance and respect sets the conditions for the child to rebound to a healthy sense of well-being in his or her own time.
Focus on their safety: Once you understand their perception of the traumatic event, be clear that you will keep them safe and let them know adults (school, police, etc.) are working hard to make sure they will stay safe. Make sure that you take all steps to prevent future incidents. Keep them away from harmful people and harmful events.
Seek help as soon as possible. The responses, reactions and abilities of those immediately responsible for a child influence the child’s ability to cope with a traumatic occurrence. While you can and should talk to your child about their feelings and make it clear that you’re available to talk at any time, it can be much more helpful to have professional help assist you. Don’t try to cope alone. While it is only natural for you to want to try and be the support for your child, going it alone will make it harder on you, especially if you have also experienced the traumatic event. By allowing others to help your child, you are not falling short on your responsibility for caring for your child; rather, you are broadening the opportunities for your child to recover through help from various people, including yourself and your other family members and community members.