Common reactions to traumatic events
A traumatic event is an event or situation that makes you feel a threat to your own or others' lives and health. Examples of traumatic events include war, disasters, violence and sexual assault, sudden or terrifying death of friends and family or being exposed to or witnessing serious injury and suffering.
Being exposed to and/or witnessing traumatic events affects everyone, both children and adults. Some people will not suffer strong reactions afterwards, while others will experience physical and/or psychological reactions that affect their health or quality of life. Both reactions are normal. If you have strong reactions to events, it is important to know that this will usually improve over time.
Common reactions after experiencing war are sadness, fear or anger. You may find yourself avoiding other people and isolating yourself. You may also experience pain in your body, such as your stomach or head, or experience a racing heart and dizziness. Many people have trouble sleeping.
Children and young peoples' reactions to traumatic events
Children may react differently depending on their age, but some reactions are common whatever their age.
Common reactions for preschool children:
- Crying or screaming
- Sleep problems and nightmares
- Fear of being separated from caregiver
- Poor appetite
Common reactions in primary and secondary school age:
- Uneasy or afraid
- Anger and irritability
- Feelings of guilt
- Concentration problems
- Sleep problems
Common reactions for older adolescents:
- Sadness and loneliness
- Anger and irritability
- Developing eating disorders or self-harming
- Misuse of alcohol or other drugs
- Risky behaviour
Children and young people can also experience strong memories of what they have experienced. It is normal to try to avoid things or people that remind them of what happened or to try to avoid talking or thinking about it.
In many people, these reactions will become milder and decrease over time. If a child continues to have problems over time, it is important to seek help. Contact your GP or local support team.
Advice on how to talk to children and young people about war, terror or other serious events.
Often we want to shield children and young people from horrible things that happen in the world. Nevertheless, we know that children and young people find out a lot from a very young age, especially via social media. With social media, we have little control over what kind of photos and videos children see and what kind of impressions they are left with.
Also, most of what is produced by news media is hardly suited to children. It is therefore important that children and young people can receive age-appropriate information about the war and about their own situation from parents or other safe caregivers. It is also important that they are allowed to ask questions.
- Tell the children about common reactions after experiencing something traumatic like war. Explain that it is quite normal to feel that way, that it will become easier over time and that they can get help if they need it. Some will not experience strong reactions. This is also perfectly fine and quite normal.
- Talk to the child about they have experienced in the war and/or during the escape and what will happen in the future. Give them the opportunity to ask questions. Do not assume that you know how the child feels or thinks. Plan to have more conversations with the child if the child has many questions.
- Talk about good memories you have together and nice things you can do in the future.
Advice on how to make children feel safe
Try to create a normal and predictable everyday life for your child. Try to ensure regular routines and social interaction with children of the same age.
- Show love and care for the child or young person and tell them you are both safe now.
- Ensure they have regular meals and get enough sleep. Shield the child from strong impressions just before bedtime. Try creating regular, pleasant evening routines adapted to the child's age.
- When starting in kindergarten and school, it is important for children and young people to quickly get into regular routines and get to know their peers.
- Make it easier for the children to feel positive emotions and experience positive things. This includes play and socialising with other children and young people of the same age. Perhaps there is a leisure club or sports club in the area? Or neighbours with children or young people of the same age?
- Be aware when talking about the war and your concerns about the situation while the children are listening. Right from infancy, children can pick up on negative feelings in their parents, such as fear, sadness and fright.
- Limit media impressions as this can contribute to uncertainty and fear in the children.
- Preschool children should be shielded from all TV images of the war.
- For older children and adolescents, it is important to avoid exposure to repetitive strong impressions. Watch news of the war together so you can share your impressions and talk about what you see.
- Be patient with yourself and with the child. Traumatic events can make both adults and children more impatient, angry and scared. Problems with sleep and concentration are also common.
If you and/or your child need help, contact your local support team.