The factsheet will help to provide some suggestions and practical ideas about how families and foster carers can help a child or young person, following a traumatic experience.
What can you do to help a child following a traumatic experience?
It is important to recognise that the reactions you see in a child or young person immediately after traumatic experiences are normal ways of reacting to extreme events. For most children and young people these will fade over time.
You might find the following ideas useful in helping a child or young person to adapt following traumatic experiences. We would encourage you to think about these seven areas with your child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) worker to help you and your child recover.
1. Safety and security
The most important thing to do immediately after any traumatic experience is to ensure that the child is safe and feels secure:
It is important that you all have somewhere safe to live. This may mean you need to seek advice from other people such as the Police or Social Services.
2. Routines and boundaries
Re-establishing routines and boundaries is an important part of the recovery process:
- Re-establish routines as soon as possible and stick to these routines. In particular try to keep meal times and sleep routines as familiar as possible.
- Try to be patient with any changes in the child’s behaviours. These changes are likely to improve over time as they regain confidence.
- Try to be consistent with boundaries, discipline and expectations. Be firm with unacceptable behaviours. After a child has been through difficult events it can be tempting to relax normal rules; however this can have the effect of making the child feel less safe and secure.
A child or young person needs love, support and reassurance. However, do not drastically change how you would normally treat him or her:
- Help the child or young person understand what has happened and reassure them that their feelings and changes in behaviour are a normal reaction to what has happened.
- Admitting that you are also feeling sad, upset etc. may help the child or young person to know their feelings are normal. However make it clear that you do not expect the child or young person to look after you.
- Provide repeated reassurance that they are not to blame and that they are safe.
- Initially you may need to spend more time with the child or young person until they feel more secure.
Talking about traumatic experiences can be difficult but it will help the child to understand what has happened, to feel reassured and to feel less alone with their worries:
- Give the child or young person opportunities to talk about the event(s), but only if they want to, forcing a child to talk when they do not want to, is not helpful and can make things worse.
- Let the child or young person talk about their thoughts and feelings in their own time.
- Use games and drawings to help younger children to talk.
- Talking about traumatic experiences as a family might help. It is common for family members to have different views about events. Talking together can help to share these different views and can improve the child or young person’s understanding about what has happened.
5. Friends and activities
Encourage the child to spend time with their friends and to continue with activities they enjoy. This can help distract them from worries about traumatic experiences and may reduce feelings of stress, allowing them to get back to normal life.
Try to involve the child in a normal life as much as possible.
6. Support from others
Talk to the child or young person about whether they would be happy for you to tell other people about what has happened. It is important they feel in control of matters affecting them:
- Talk to the child or young person about what may be appropriate to tell their friends about the traumatic experiences.
- Talking to others who are involved in the child or young person’s life (e.g. teachers) can help to improve others’ understanding of what has happened, how the child has been affected and what they can do to help.
- Encourage the child or young person to spend time with supportive friends.
7. Looking after yourself
To ensure that you feel able to support the child following traumatic experiences it is really important that you look after yourself too:
- Make sure you eat regularly, get plenty of sleep, rest, relaxation and exercise. This can help to reduce feelings of stress.
- Maintain your social contacts, as they can help you to feel supported.
- Talking with family and friends about your own reactions is helpful, although this may feel difficult. It is important you choose to talk to someone who you know will listen to how you feel.
If, after about a month following any traumatic experience, you are still finding it difficult to cope with your own feelings (e.g. feeling tearful, having nightmares), you might want to meet with your GP to discuss this. Your GP may suggest that you could benefit from talking to someone else within a specialist service.
You may also find the following useful:
The scared child. Helping kids overcome traumatic events- by Brooks, B., Siegel, P.M. (1996), John Wiley & Sons, Inc
The voice of young people’s health and mental wellbeing- www.youngminds.org.uk/
Death in the family - helping children to cope -
For information on the guidance that the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) has issued to the NHS on the treatment and care of people with post-traumatic stress disorder visit Understanding NICE guidance – information for people with PTSD, their advocates and carers, and the public - http://guidance.nice.org.uk/CG26/publicinfo/pdf/English
Date last updated:
17 / May / 2017
17 / May / 2020
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