Supporting children after a frightening event 

Children and young people sometimes witness things that they find very scary or stressful, for example, car accidents or fights. Their reactions to the event may vary.

Possible reactions

Children and young people will vary in how they react to a frightening event, but some possible reactions are:

  • Nightmares.
  • Memories or pictures of the event unexpectedly popping into his or her mind.
  • Feeling as if it is actually happening again.
  • Repetitive play or drawing about the event that does not seem to be for fun.
  • Not wanting to think or talk about the event.
  • Avoiding anything that might remind him or her of the event.
  • Getting angry or upset more easily.
  • Feeling guilty, ashamed or confused.
  • Not being able to concentrate.
  • Not being able to sleep.
  • Being more jumpy and on the look out for danger.
  • Becoming more clingy with parents or carers.
  • Physical complaints, such as stomach or headaches.
  • Temporarily losing abilities, perhaps feeding and toileting.
  • Problems at school.

How to help children after a frightening event

Sometimes these thoughts and feelings stay around for a long time. This can happen if we try not to talk or think about what happened for example, if it is too scary for the child (or adult). Below are some ways to help children to talk and think about the frightening event so that over time it seems less frightening, and so the unwanted thoughts and feelings can start to disappear.

Do try to make things as normal as possible 

By keeping in place as many of his or her normal routines as possible, the impact of an event on your child can be minimised and he or she can start to feel safer sooner.

Do be available to talk with your child when he or she is ready

Sometimes parents try to protect children by avoiding talking about the event. They worry that they will upset their child unnecessarily and make things worse. Some people hope that by keeping quiet, their child will forget all about the event. In fact, children are likely to want to talk about what happened and they may want adult help with this. Talking is usually helpful but it needs to be done carefully and sensitively at the right time for your child. Try to provide opportunities, support and encouragement to enable your child to talk about it at his or her own pace. Younger children may use dolls or toys or draw pictures rather than talk. 

Do try to answer your child’s questions truthfully

Encourage your child to ask questions and try to answer them simply and honestly. They may need to ask the same question several times over, as a way of coming to terms with what has happened.

Do help your child to come up with a ‘story’ about what happened

A story can help your child understand what happened. He or she may need help to come up with a story. It should make sense, put together the main facts and be truthful but appropriate for your child’s age. Even young children can really benefit from having a story to explain what happened. It helps in many ways:

  • It helps the child to make sense of the frightening event and also helps to reduce some of the unpleasant feelings such as fear, anger and sadness.
  • Talking through the story can help correct misunderstandings. For example, children may believe that what happened was their fault or be confused about important facts. For instance, they could be confused about who has died and what this means. You can help to avoid this by using clear words, for instance, “John has died” rather than metaphors, such as, “John has gone on a journey”. You can help to avoid this by being clear and open.
  • Having a story prepared can help children talk to others about what has happened.
  • If it is difficult for you to talk to your child about it, you could ask another adult to help, such as a family member or teacher. It is important that all adults keep to the same story so that the child is not confused.
  • Thinking things through with your child can also help him or her to realise that, although bad things can happen, they do not happen so often that we need to be scared of them all the time.

By the time they are about five years old, children are able to understand that death is permanent and that the person who has died cannot come back, that it happens to all living things and that it has a cause. However, they may need help with this, particularly younger children who may not realise that death is permanent and keep asking when the person is coming back.

Do look after yourself

If you are upset by what has happened, it may be more difficult to talk to your child about it. You might want to talk to another adult about it. If you are unsure whether you can manage to talk to your child about it right now, you could ask another important adult to help, such as a family member or trusted teacher. It is important that all adults keep to the same story so that your child is not confused.

When and where to seek more help

Many children feel upset for a few weeks after a frightening event and then become happier again over time. Some children continue to feel scare several weeks after the event. If you are worried that your child is very distressed or continues to be distressed even after a month or so, you could seek help from your family doctor (GP). He or she will check your child’s health and talk to you about who else could help, such as your local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service.

Compiled by: 
The Traumatic Stress Clinic in collaboration with the Child and Family Information Group.
Last review date: 
February 2014
Ref: 
2013F0327

Disclaimer

Please note this is a generic GOSH information sheet. If you have specific questions about how this relates to your child, please ask your doctor. Please note this information may not necessarily reflect treatment at other hospitals.