How to Help Children After A Traumatic Experience

Sandy Lipkus, B.Ed; M.S.W. Grief counsellor,

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were overwhelming and unexpected. Children in particular experience very strong emotional reactions. Some reactions may appear immediately at the time of the crisis and some reaction may appear over time. Remember there is no "typical" reaction to crisis, and each person reacts in a different manner. Children may react in many ways to a traumatic experience.

  • Display of intense emotions such as fear, anxiety, denial, shock
  • Strained relationships with others. Conflict with family members or friends
  • Withdrawal from everyday activities
  • Change in sleeping or eating habits
  • Flashbacks: reliving the event
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, abdominal pains, nausea
  • Nightmares
  • Regression to an earlier stage of development such as bedwetting
  • Overreaction to a situation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Depression or intense sadness
  • Numb and disconnected feeling
  • Drop in grades or fear of going to school
  • Hyperactivity

All of the above are normal reactions for those who have experienced a traumatic event. How can we as parents, teachers, educators and professionals help children through the grieving process and begin the long road to recovery?

  • Listen and offer reassurance to your children as they express their feelings to you.
  • A supportive attitude is very important.
  • Provide well balanced meals
  • Encourage exercise and plenty of rest
  • Find out about local support groups or trained professionals specializing in crisis counselling
  • Express your feelings openly with your children.
  • Provide appropriate reading material from your local library, schools, newspapers or internet. Be extremely selective
  • Encourage discussion
  • Resume daily routines as soon as possible
  • Address their concerns and questions with honesty and reassure them that you are there to keep them protected and safe.
  • For younger children especially, encourage them to play using creative media to express what they are feeling. This can include puppets, drawing materials, drama/dress-up, clay, music, or creative writing
  • For adolescents or older children, it is sometimes difficult for them to verbalize their feelings. Encourage creative writing, discussions with peers, keeping a daily diary or log, writing letters or poetry.
  • Do not be afraid to show physical affection. It can be very comforting for children

Understanding normal responses of children to a traumatic, sudden or disastrous death is the first step to helping them cope effectively with the loss they are experiencing. Keep in mind that these reactions may subside and reoccur over time. There are certain times of the year when their grief resurfaces such as the anniversary of the event, or the birthday of their loved one. Provide honest answers, and continue to be supportive, patient, and understanding.

Sandy Lipkus, B.Ed; M.S.W.
Grief counsellor,

submitted by: Sandy Lipkus M.S.W., B.Ed

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