Post-Traumatic Stress – Information for Children & Parents
Charles Emmrys PhD
Almost everyone will, at some time in their life, face a stressful event for which they have little preparation. Professionals refer to these as traumatic events. Serious accidents, disasters, injury as a result of aggression by others, the loss of homes, and the loss of someone close through sudden diseases or even murder are traumatic events that do occur to individuals all too often. When these things do occur, the people involved almost always underestimate the effect that the shock can have on their everyday life.
When a traumatic event takes place, the shock will have an important effect both on the physical body and on the mind of those involved. These effects will be painful or even unbearable at times. It can be so unbearable that many people will consciously want to avoid the pain. Others will feel numb because their mind will have postponed the pain until the person is stronger. However, this period of pain has shown itself to be necessary for people to get over trauma and regain a normal balanced life.
There are some differences in how people live through traumatic events but there are also allot of similarities. Trauma victims are often surprised that they are not alone in feeling what they feel. In the following pages, we will try and outline the various kinds of experiences traumatised people most often have after experiencing their trauma. Since the experience of children is different from that of the parent, we will present them separately.
What Are the Effects of a Severe Trauma?
What the child can possibly feel and experience:
- For children of one to five years, effects can include (1) younger behaviour such as bed wetting or baby talk, (2) loss of appetite or indigestion and diarrhoea, (3) moody and bad tempered, (4) clinging more to parents, and (5) unable to pay attention so that you have to say things twice or three times.
- For children of six to eleven years, effects can include (1) trying to get parents attention all the time, (2) headaches, rashes, or even hearing or sight problems, (3) fear of going out to play with friends or getting into more fights, (4) loss of interest in favourite activities or friends, (5) loss of sleep and nightmares, and (6) unable to pay attention.
- For the young teenagers from 12 to 14, the effects can include (1) less responsible and more immature, (2) headaches and rashes, (3) trouble sleeping and nightmares, (4) less active and joyful, and (5) trouble concentrating and getting things done.
- For older teenagers from 14 to 18, effects can include (1) a loss of interest in friends and activities outside the home, (2) less interest in girlfriends or boyfriends, (3) trouble sleeping and nightmares, (4) headaches, hair loss, and or skin rashes, (5) looks depressed or less joyful.
Things to remember about kids:
- Children feel things very deeply but often cannot talk about it like adults and don't show it on their faces as clearly. But they do show it in their behaviour by being clingy or showing the effects mentioned above.
- Children use play to work things out. This means that the traumatic event or something like it may appear in play with dolls or in drawings or even in storytelling with friends. This is a normal part of the working through process. If they feel they shouldn't work it through in their play, the effects of the trauma may last longer.
- Children look to parents when trying to understand something terrible. They will use the same words, and have many of the same emotions. Parents can't hide their own emotions from their children in these times, no matter how hard they try. For that reason, it is important to be honest with them while also being reassuring.
- Even if the child or adult in the family was not directly affected or was not present at the time of the event, they can still be traumatised. For this reason, one should always include them in the working through process.
What the adult can feel:
- Feeling responsible or guilty for not having somehow prevented or stopped the event from happening. This feeling can be very strong and painful but is also very natural. Even hurricane or earthquake victims feel this.
- A lot of anger and frustration over the fact that this had to happen here.
- Feeling the need to talk about the event a lot or not wanting to talk about it at all.
- A lot of fear for your children to the point of not wanting to let them out or feeling panicky when they do go out.
- Feeling really suspicious of others, sometimes even of people you know.
- Loss of sleep and nightmares, digestive problems, or even heart problems.
- Panic attacks that happen even when you least expect it.
How to Work This Through
- It’s OK to be sad and to cry about this with your children when the topic comes up in the course of a day. Children need to show their feelings as well and to see those feelings from their parents. To try and keep the children out of it or not talk about it is not a good idea. However, if you find that you are crying all the time, you may want to get some help.
- When showing your emotions, it is important for parents to also show the children that they will take care of them. A parent could say for example, "Yes, mummy and daddy are very sad and angry about what happened. But in a while we will feel better and we will keep you safe and make sure this never happens again."
- If children are always playing games of reliving the incident, this is similar to adult talking it out a lot with friends. Parents should see this as a good way for the children to get over the trauma. Parents can also use play to reassure their child by having games where a victim is rescued by parents or a police officer.
- Spend more time at home in the house so everyone can reconnect with the family and build their trust. It’s normal to stick close to home for a while after this kind of tragedy. Use this time for some positive togetherness such as drives or picnics.
- Don't try to hide the facts. It will be the parents’ task to help the children understand that some "bad" things do happen but that parents, police and others will keep them safe. Be honest about what happened but don't exaggerate it. Keep it simple and plain.
- It is very common for children to refuse to sleep in their room. In such cases you can:
- Have them sleep in their room and spend some nights sleeping with them until they are asleep. Let them know that this is temporary.
- Spend more time with them during the day.
- Spend more time with bedtime stories.
- Use a night light or keep door open.
- The idea is to gradually get them back to sleeping in their room as before.
- One idea for helping everyone in the family cope better and keep the healing process going is the family circle. To have a family circle proceed as follows:
- Place - A good place to have a family circle is in the living room or the kitchen table. The only rule is that the T.V. and all other entertainment machines (radio, stereo system) should be off.
- Time - A family circle should take place after homework is done and before bed. An alternative is on a weekend morning. The important thing is that it be a relaxing time.
- The Rules - The only rules are that each person has a turn to talk about their life and how they are getting along. He or she should not be interrupted. Only parents can ask questions if something is not clear. The following are the questions each should be asked by the parents when it is their turn to speak.
- How am I sleeping? Do I have nightmares or is it still hard to sleep.
- Do I get along well at school and with my friends or is it still harder to do since the event.
- Do I still think of the event often? If I do, what are my thoughts and my feelings?
- Who Talks - Every member of the family should be invited to talk, including the parents. If a person does not want to talk, that is OK. If a child is under seven years old, parents should encourage the child to listen, to say a few words, and possibly draw a picture of how they are getting along. Even two or three year old children should be there so that they can see that the parents are working to make it better.
- How Often - These meetings can occur once a week or once every two weeks until the family feels they have worked things out.
- Ending - At the end, the parents should make sure the children understand what the meeting was about. Words like "This is our way to make sure we can talk about it so that people can feel better afterwards" followed by a reassurance like " And mummy and daddy love you and will make sure you are OK" are examples of how to end a meeting.
How Long Will It Hurt
Usually, it takes from three to six weeks for the most painful effects of a traumatic event to be worked through. Though it may appear that it will never end, people should remind themselves that their body and mind are working hard to achieve healing and get on with living. It is important for those working through a trauma to try and keep reminding themselves that this is not going to last forever.
For some, the healing can take a long time or get stuck. If a person is not getting better after three months, it is a good idea to consult a professional.