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Helping Children To Cope With Trauma

by Dr. Randi Fredricks, Ph.D., Director of San Jose Counseling and Psychotherapy

After a catastrophic event, such as the loss of a loved one or an accident, children may be fearful, sad, or apprehensive. However, most children recover from their feelings of fear in a short time.

A key element in recovery is the support children get from parents, teachers, and other adults. In assisting children in coping with trauma, it's safe to assume that every child will have some level of reaction, although most will be relatively mild. All children seem to benefit from active involvement and awareness of a concerned adult, instead of a more passive approach which delays action until significant problems are observed.

Children may be particularly vulnerable due to their more limited coping and communication skills, the powerful influence of media exposure such as television, and the often insufficient attention focused on early identification and intervention for children affected by traumatic events. To help a child cope with trauma, a parent or guardian can do the following things.

Anticipate needs. Take the initiative: approach children to chat, to talk about their feelings and concerns about a traumatic or scary event before they bring it up. It is easier for children if the adults anticipate their needs and open up the lines of communication, particularly in difficult times. This also sends the message that a topic is okay to talk about with adults.

Look at these discussions as a process. Use brief, frequent chats, rather than a single all-inclusive presentation, as a way of exploring feelings and thoughts. Such chats are more natural and allow for observation and interaction and are less likely to be overwhelming or 'preachy' to children.

Use candor with discretion. This should be the theme of all adult-to-child communication on traumatic incidents. Be honest, but give details and explanations at a level commensurate with the child's cognitive and emotional capacity. It is healthy and appropriate to begin with more limited sharing that provides a foundation for future elaboration. We can do much to assist children in dealing with reality but cannot and should not attempt to rewrite reality for children.

Let kids know how you feel. Although adults need to have a degree of composure when talking to children about sensitive issues, it can be useful to let a child know that grownups have uncomfortable and upsetting feelings, too. It can be comforting for a child to realize that adults get scared on occasion and need support from family, friends, and that sometimes therapy may be helpful. Children need to know that it’s okay to feel hurt and that the pain does get better with time.

Most children and teenagers will recover from their fear. If, after a month, a child is still showing signs of distress, professional help from a therapist may be indicated. Signs of distress include not sleeping or eating, excessive clinging, re-experiencing the event through nightmares, recollections or play, emotional numbing, or persistent fears about disaster. If a child or adolescent is experiencing these symptoms, seek the assistance of a school counselor or other mental health professional

Dr. Randi Fredricks, Ph.D., is an author, researcher, and Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist (#47803) in San Jose, California. She works with teenagers and adults with anxiety, depression, addiction, and eating disorders. To learn more about Dr. Fredricks' work, visit

Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.
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