Supporting children through trauma

Most children experience psychological trauma at some stage in their lives - perhaps as a result of parental separation or divorce, maybe due to a family bereavement or as a reaction to terrible events in the news.

It is always difficult to know what to say to children in these situations. Knowing it's ok to talk about it honestly/answer any questions truthfully and how to watch for various signs of stress have enabled us to confidently engage with children around recent issues. Kate, Fairways Pre-school, Southend.

Just like adults, children often struggle to cope with the emotional impact of such life-changing events - they can become distressed, disorientated and unfocussed, to such an extent that they have difficulty maintaining their normal daily routine. 

Every child is different, and each copes with stressful life events in their own way. However, watch out for changes in the behaviour of a child you care for. Their response to trauma might be to change from outgoing to withdrawn or from introverted to exuberant, or from placid to irritable - the change in behaviour is the child's way of telling you that something is wrong. 

Reactions to emotionally draining experiences vary depending on a child's resilience, their previous experience of dealing with stress, their age and stage of development, and their personality. 

Children deal with trauma emotionally in five common ways:

  1. Obvious distress. The child cries frequently, looks pale and drawn, and openly tells you that they are unhappy about what has happened.
  2. Passivity. When they are with you, the child is emotionally flat, quiet and withdrawn. They are hard to engage in conversation and they have no interest in play activities.
  3. Non-specific fear. The child is unusually afraid, perhaps telling you they are worried that something terrible is going to happen to them. 
  4. Personal responsibility. Sometimes children react to trauma by blaming themselves for what has happened; they are convinced it is their fault.
  5. Psychological regression. They start to behave like a younger child, for instance wetting themselves during the day when they were previously dry.

Actions and words

As you will know if you look after children of different ages, the under-5s are less able than older children to express themselves using words. While a 10-year-old might confide in you that they feel dreadful because they miss their granddad terribly, or that they're scared after a recent terror attack, a 4-year-old might go for weeks or months without saying a word.

So pay close attention to body language as well as to spoken language. You can learn a great deal from a child's non-verbal communication, for example, the way that they make eye contact, the way they hold their head and shoulders and the distance they keep between themselves and others.

Be aware of what adults around the children are talking about too. Consider not having the news on all the time when there's been an incident - news features aimed at adults may confuse and distress children. This BBC Newsround advice for talking to children about distressing events is useful, too. 

Whatever the age and developmental stage of the children in your care, always encourage open communication. If you create an atmosphere in your childcare setting where the children feel confident that they can discuss their concerns and anxieties at any time, then they will be much more likely to talk to you when they experience traumatic events. 

10 tips for helping children through trauma

  1. Offer reassurance. The child wants to hear you tell them that they are safe and well, and that everything will be OK.
  2. Hugs and cuddles. Young children are usually comforted more by gentle, caring physical gestures than they are by words alone.
  3. Listen. Allow - and encourage - children to voice their concerns. Listen respectfully and give them space to talk about the traumatic event.
  4. Take concerns seriously. You know that a child has had nothing to do with her parents' divorce, but she might feel responsible. Don't trivialise their comments.
  5. Show empathy. Let the child see that you understand what they are going through, for instance, saying to them "I can see that this is a difficult time for you".
  6. Answer honestly. If they ask you questions about what lies ahead for them, give a suitable answer. And if you don't know, say so. 
  7. Draw them in. A child might need time and space to compose himself - that's fine, but do encourage them to interact with the other children in your care.
  8. Focus on the positives. No matter how awful the trauma has been, find something positive for the child to focus on.
  9. Monitor progress. Keep a close watch over the child during the next few weeks and months. Look out for any sign that they are not coping or are troubled again. 
  10. Work with parents. A child will be further reassured to know that you and their parents have a close connection. 

Other useful resources

Supporting children through trauma resources bundle (free to PACEY members)

Other free resources for PACEY members

This spotlight is based on content originally published by PACEY in Who Minds? magazine in 2010 and was written by Dr Richard Woolfson.