What do I say to my child? Helping your child after a traumatic event

MOH advice on how to help your children cope with trauma

How children react to trauma is different from adults – they may withdraw or behave in a more “babyish” way, seem anxious or clingy, be preoccupied with the event in their play or drawing, have problems sleeping or nightmares, or may get physical symptoms such as stomach aches or headaches.

As with adults, most children will recover with support and love from those around them.

As parents or caregivers you will know your kids best, and what works for them. Some simple dos and don’ts to guide you support a distressed child are:


  1. Reassure them that the event is over and they are safe.
  2. Encourage them to talk about how they feel about what happened.
  3. Tell them they can ask questions, and answer these in plain language appropriate to their age – be honest but avoid details of the trauma.
  4. Tell them that feeling upset or afraid is normal, and that telling you how they are feeling will help, that with time they will feel better.
  5. Be understanding – they may have problems sleeping, tantrums, wet the bed – be patient and reassuring if this happens – again, with support and care it will pass.
  6. Give your children extra love and attention.
  7. Remember that children look to their parents to both feel safe and to know how to respond – reassure them, share that you are upset too but that you know you will all be fine together.
  8. Try to keep to normal routines – mealtimes, bedtimes etc. – allow them to get out and play, to go to the park etc.
  9. HOWEVER if a child’s distress is escalating, or they are displaying any worrying behaviours – extreme withdrawal, terror that you cannot comfort them from etc – seek help early. Your GP is a good start, OR For support with grief, anxiety, distress or mental wellbeing, you can call or text 1737 – free, anytime, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – to talk it through with a trained counsellor.


  1. Talking about the details of a traumatic event repeatedly can be harmful. Children may be fascinated/horrified and may want to ask about details, talk about what they saw/experienced.
  2. If this is repeated try to refocus them on how they are feeling e.g. what happened is awful, it’s normal to feel upset or afraid, how are you feeling?
  3. Don’t tell them “don’t worry” or “don’t be upset” – it is natural to want to protect them from fear and difficult emotions, but they need to have their feelings acknowledged and validated as a normal response.
  4. Try not to be over-protective, again this is a natural thing for a parent to do, but as part of keeping normal

See also:

What to tell children about the Christchurch mosque shootings

Parents wrestling with how to explain the Christchurch mosque massacre to their children should tell them they’re safe, but be honest that something bad has happened.

Clinical psychologist Dr Sarb Johal said that when it came to dealing with tragedy, children took cues from their parents

“Kids need to be told ‘you’re safe, we’re safe, something bad has happened and there are people out there helping’,” Johal said.

Read more: What to tell children about the Christchurch mosque shootings
Stuff, 15/3/2019

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