A guide for health and social service workers: Common reactions to trauma and loss by children aged 0-5 years

Emerging Minds, Australia, 2018

Resource Summary

Key points

  • Children’s trauma and grief needs special attention and routine checks.
  • The most important aspect of a child’s recovery from trauma and loss is the support and understanding of their parents and trusted adults.
  • Parents can mistakenly minimise or dismiss their child’s trauma-related behaviour and may need support from practitioners to help recognise and respond to the effects of trauma and loss.
  • Following trauma and loss, it is important to explore with parents how each of their children is coping and help them to connect with and label the emotions that underlie their children’s behaviour.

Practitioners are aware that children of all ages are affected by trauma and loss. Many parents will present at a service concerned by their infant or child’s behaviour. In some cases, practitioners will develop concerns about a child’s social and emotional wellbeing that are not immediately obvious to parents.

Children need their parents or other trusted adults to help them manage their feelings, thoughts and behaviours. Sometimes, practitioners need to engage with parents to help them understand the best ways to support their child’s recovery from trauma and loss.

List of typical responses

Infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers (0–5 years) may:

  • become distressed and unsettled when a parent, carer or sibling is distressed (young children are highly sensitive to the emotions of others around them)
  • ‘babble’ a lot and be hyper-aroused and unsettled
  • appear irritated or unable to settle or relax
  • get startled by small noises or movements
  • become increasingly clingy or fussy
  • cry all the time, often with increased intensity
  • seem listless or limp
  • have sleep difficulties including difficulty going to sleep alone, waking in the night and having nightmares
  • show delayed progress in developmental milestones such as feeding themselves or sleeping independently
  • start wetting the bed
  • struggle to listen and follow instructions
  • repeatedly ask the same questions about the disaster, or where their loved one or pet is
  • complain of tummy aches or headaches
  • refuse to go to places or do things for themselves when previously able
  • get into fights, be argumentative and refuse to co-operate or challenge authority
  • be extra watchful and fearful, cry easily and withdraw socially
  • exhibit confusion regarding the permanency of death and may believe their loved one or pet will return and may feel abandoned
  • avoid new things or going to new places
  • avoid or getting frightened by reminders of the event
  • become sick more often with colds, headaches or stomach aches
  • play act or draw the event, or ‘play disaster’
  • blame themselves for the event or make up stories about why it happened
  • regress in behaviour; for example, young children who have been toilet trained may start to wet their pants or defecate themselves in the day time. This can be very upsetting and confusing for them.
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