Advice and support for parents (pre-school child)

Normal reactions to a traumatic event

Following any distressing event it is quite normal to experience a range of reactions and each person, including young children, will respond in their own way. The variety in response could be due to a number of factors including their developing language skills and their level of emotions and social understanding. As adults, it is important to understand that certain behaviours, bodily expressions or play can be mediums through which they can communicate alongside, or instead of, language. Your pre-school child may show some of the following:

  • Have limited understanding of what happened to them. Whilst this can mean they are more likely to forget the event after a short while, it can also mean they are more likely to misinterpret what has happened
  • Display magical thinking (ie that something is not real, is reversible) and have a need for concrete information
  • They may display symptoms such as night terrors, have difficulty sleeping, become clingy or display regressive behaviours (ie behaviours akin to that of a child of a younger age)
  • Signs that they are ‘re-experiencing’ or thinking about the traumatic event through their play. You may notice that your child draws images related to the event or acts out scenes of the event when playing
  • Strong expressions of emotions by adults may frighten them and they may display fears that are unrelated to the trauma
  • They may be anxious when separated from primary care-givers and want to stay close to them. This is their way of seeking comfort and reassurance
  • Their expression of emotion may be more extreme following a traumatic event with them, for example, appearing unusually withdrawn or quiet and/or they may become more aggressive in their play

How to help your child

A basic premise for children in this age group is that their lives are centred on their home and family and their “very sense of well-being depends on the presence of the parent/carer” (Christ, 2000).

It is also important to recognise that the reactions you are seeing immediately following a trauma are ‘normal’ ways of reacting to extreme events. For most children these will fade over time however seek further professional support if the child’s severe symptoms persist over longer periods of time (over 3 months).

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