SummaryRead the full fact sheet
- Children’s responses to distressing events depend on their age and stage of development, previous experiences, the current situation and the impact of the crisis on their parents and significant others.
- Children will realise that something is wrong, even if no one in the family talks to them about it. If they aren’t given the facts, they will fill in the blanks from their own knowledge, experiences and imaginings often this will cause distortions.
- Sometimes distress reactions may surface weeks or even months after the event.
On this page
For children, as for adults, a distressing or frightening experience can challenge their sense of security and the predictability of their world. Such events can include life-threatening car accidents, bushfires, floods, sudden illness, traumatic death in the family, crime, abuse or violence.
Children’s responses to these experiences depend on their age and stage of development, and the impact on their parents or significant others including siblings, friends or carers.
Children will ‘fill in the blanks’
It’s a natural reaction to want to shield children from harsh realities. However, keeping a child ‘in the dark’ doesn’t protect them from the emotional impact of a distressing or frightening event. It may even make it worse for them as children are keen observers and will realise that something is wrong, even if no one in the family talks to them about it.
If a child hasn’t been given the facts they need, they will fill in the blanks from previous knowledge or experience or from their imagination. Since children are naturally self-centred, they may assume the tragedy was somehow their fault, for example, a child may think that God sent a bushfire to punish them for disobedience. In some cases, the child’s construction of the events may be far scarier than what actually happened.
Children’s reactions change with age
Every child reacts differently and typical reactions change with age. Your child may not react the way you expect. Depending on their age and stage, they may not have acquired the skills to articulate their thoughts and feelings to those around them. Depending on their level of distress, they may not know how to communicate and find words to express their thoughts and feelings to those around them. Sometimes, distress reactions surface weeks or even months after the event.
Common reactions include:
- Physical reactions – children often react to distressing or frightening events in physical ways
- Sleep problems such as not wanting to go to bed at night or difficulties getting to sleep, staying asleep, staying in their own bed and with nightmares
- Changes in eating habits
- Going back to behaviours from earlier developmental stages – becoming more ‘babyish’ and attention seeking
- Becoming more clingy, demanding or difficult
- Not being able to take the same level of responsibility as before the event
- Fear at being separated from their parents or carers
- Changes in their relationships with siblings, such as becoming more competitive or aggressive
- Needing to ‘relive’ the trauma, for example, they may draw pictures of it or act it out
- Unexplained physical ailments, such as headaches and stomach aches
- Not wanting to go to school
- Behavioural problems at school
- Drop in academic performance
- Cannot cope with social or sporting events
- Withdrawal – for example, the child may not want to discuss their thoughts or feelings in case it upsets their parents or carers, or they may spend more time alone, perhaps in front of the TV or computer to stop their thoughts.
What parents and carers can do
Children look to their parents and carers to gain understanding of a situation and find appropriate ways to deal with it. General suggestions include:
- Give your child the facts about what happened and why, using age-appropriate language.
- Make sure you explain why adults did what they did, how they kept children safe, what they have learned and will do next time. Assist your child to play or talk about their thoughts and feelings. This also helps you to gauge whether or not they understand what actually happened or whether they have another understanding.
- Allow your child to express their feelings to the person of their choosing and in whichever way they need to. Demanding that they do what you want will lead to friction and misunderstandings.
- Reassure them that their feelings are normal and they will get back to normal in time.
- Tell them how you’re feeling too so they can understand your responses, but don’t ‘overload’ or burden them with the too much detail.
- You may need to explain adult reactions to stress. For example, your child may feel distressed by a crying parent or carer unless they know the reason for the upset and that the adult can handle being sad.
- Keep up regular household routines, if possible.
- Make time for pleasurable family activities.
- Regularly hang out with the children and just give them your full attention and see what flows from that.
- Remember that your child’s distress reactions are usually short-lived.
When to seek professional help
It may help to seek professional advice if:
- The family as a unit is finding it difficult to cope with the impacts and demands of the events and the follow-on
- The child’s reactions, changed patterns and behaviours are intense, do not settle in a week or two or become worse, or if new ones develop
- The child talks about harming themselves or tries to harm themselves
- You are worried about your child or their wellbeing or do not understand their reactions
- You are finding it a struggle to manage your reactions to the situation in your child, your family or yourself.
If at any time you are worried about your mental health or the mental health of a loved one, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Where to get help
- Your GP (doctor)
- Your maternal and child health nurse
- Your local community health centre
- Paediatrician or Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist – your doctor can refer you
- Phoenix Australia Centre for Post-traumatic Mental Health Tel. (03) 9035 5599
- Centre for Grief and Bereavement Tel. 1800 642 066
General telephone counselling services can provide advice:
- Lifeline Tel. 13 11 14
- GriefLine Tel. 1300 845 745
- beyondblue Tel. 1300 22 4636
- Parentline Tel. 13 22 89
- Kids Helpline Tel. 1800 55 1800
- NURSE-ON-CALL Tel. 1300 60 60 24 – for expert health information and advice (24 hours, 7 days).
- Children’s reaction to war and uncertainty, Department of Human Services, Victorian Government, Australia.
- When there is a tragedy, Parenting and Child Health, South Australian Government.