Helping young children to deal with tragic events

In an ideal world, we’d prefer if our children were never exposed to tragic events or ever become the witness of something traumatic, but unfortunately, try as we might this is not always possible. As much as we can switch off disturbing TV or radio reports, hide newspapers or censor our discussions, sometimes things happen in front of our children that are simply unavoidable.

Whether it is death, disaster, violence, illness, injury, family turmoil or any other ugly incident that life may inflict upon us, we need to support our children through this time in every way that we can. When a child is exposed to something traumatic they will exhibit the signs of this stress in various ways, and each child is very different of course.

Apart from trying to maintain your regular routine as much as possible, and offering love and understanding, there are also some behaviours to look out for and some useful tips to use when they present.

A few signs that your child may be reacting to a traumatic event:

  • Separation anxiety, clingy and upset when left alone
  • Loss of appetite
  • Change in sleeping patterns
  • Quiet and withdrawn, reluctant to talk or join in
  • Overactive and obsessing with the event
  • Re-enacting the event in playtime, often inaccurately
  • Frustration and aggression
  • Regression such as bed wetting, nightmares and asking for comforters
With slightly older children it may also present as a dislike or sudden fear of attending school, truancy and poor performance in class.

How can we help our children?

  • Respond to your child’s need for closeness, help them feel safe and secure
  • Remain patient and calm when dealing with any negative behaviour
  • Validate your child’s feelings, ignoring them won’t help
  • Talk about your child’s feelings, and your own: sad, scared, worried etc.
  • Make this easier, expressing the feelings with faces or pictures
  • Try to answer any questions as best you can, keeping the answers simple
  • Try not to be distressed if your child re-enacts a tragic event, or re-tells it in stories or during play. This can be their way of making sense of things and working through what happened. Discourage them from forming an exaggerated version of what happened.
  • Manage your own emotions first and foremost, be a role model if you can.

One of the biggest mistakes parents make when facing the fallout of trauma, however big or small, is forgetting (or refusing) to ask for help. Lean on your family or community and allow your early learning or childcare centre to assist with keeping an eye on your little one. Most reputable Australian childcare centres have staff trained in how to deal with such situations, and they can lend a hand with looking out for any negative feelings your child may be experiencing.

There are many avenues to go down when looking for that bit of extra support and advice, so regardless of the cause behind a family trauma, there is always someone with the relevant experience, who is trained and ready to help. So for you and your child or children, never try to do it alone.