Life presents us with surprises; good and bad. Sometimes these surprises can be a small fender bender, grandpa going to the hospital, the child himself falling down from a bicycle or big sister fracturing her foot while playing soccer. For a child, the impact of these common life events can be traumatic. Depending on the developmental level of your child, the impact of life events like these can last for a long time.
Impact of a minor traumatic incident
My friend Tina, (not a real name) had a family reunion. She attended with her 3 year old daughter. One day while Tina was chatting with her dad, he started shaking and fell down on the floor. He rolled his eyes and started frothing through his mouth. Tina got scared, she called for help while holding her dad. Her daughter was playing in the far corner of the room. Tina’s dad was taken to the hospital and recovered well. After the incident, Tina’s daughter asked many questions about the incident such as; why did he fall? What did the doctor do? Is he going to be alright? Tina explained it as much as she could considering the daughter’s age. Seems like this incident impacted the daughter deeply. Couple of months after the incident, Tina’s daughter was jumping on the couch and suddenly asked,”Why do people fall?”. Tina was surprised by the question. This meant that her daughter still remembered the incident and jumping on the couch might have triggered the memories. The same thing happened a couple of times later. Tina got concerned and approached me for advice. This is a good example of how small traumatic incidents impact young kids. It might not show right away and not all impact affects functioning. It is normal for young children to remember the incident again when triggered by some action, by visiting similar place or person. They might worry about something similar happening to them or their parents. As a parent, what can you do?
5 things you can do
You are your child’s first responder. They are going to turn to you for help first because they trust you and know that you can help. It can be confusing for you because it is difficult to know how much information you can give to your child safely. You also might worry about wellness of your child. Here are some useful tips-
Use open ended questions
Open ended questions provide opportunity to gain more information. You can ask-
How did it feel?
What did you want to do?
Can you tell me more?
Validate and acknowledge your child’s feelings and thoughts in a non-judgmental way
You can say something like -
Yes, it was scary
You wanted to help
You thought grandpa is going to die when he went to the hospital
You feel sad that you can’t play with sister now
You are worried that we will get into an accident again
Ask your child to draw the incident
When your child starts talking about the incident give them crayons/markers and ask them to draw it the way they remember it.
Make non-judgmental comments about the drawing such as; I see a person on the ground, you drew yourself in the corner
Hold your child
Nothing tells your child they are safe and protected other than a hug.
Hold them close to you
Sit them on your lap and reassure them that you are there for them.
If they are having trouble sleeping, hold their hand while they are holding a stuffed toy/blankie, sing a lullaby, read a book.
Reassure them that things are OK
Children feel better when they see that the situation is better now.
Keep their routine as normal as possible
Use technology. Do face time with grandpa to reassure your child that he is fine.
Avoid giving them too much information- give only age appropriate information
Distract with a play-date, a movie, visit to a zoo, playing a board game.
When to seek professional help
Consult a professional; pediatrician or counselor if you notice the following symptoms lasting for more than one month on a consistent basis. Look for the following signs of distress in your child-
Increased frequency of feelings like sadness, fear, confusion, guilt
Unusual mood swings
Difficulty going to sleep or staying asleep, night terrors, nightmares
Avoidance of activities, people or places
Sudden changes in behavior at home or at school- crying spells, anger outbursts, difficulty focusing
Exaggerated, startle response
Headaches or stomach aches
The list of symptoms is not exhaustive. One or more of the above symptoms might be present immediately after the event. Some symptoms may be delayed; may show up for up to 6 months after the incident. Remember, when in doubt, always consult with a professional.
Note - This blog is written for children 0-6 year old. Some of the techniques can be applied to older children.
Related Posts: Effectively Dealing with Temper Tantrums
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