What is typical distress after traumatic events?
It is expected for a child or adolescent to struggle and feel scared or upset after one, or multiple seriously frightening or upsetting events. It usually takes them a little while to recover and readjust after traumatic experiences.
It is fairly common that children or adolescents present with tantrums, moodiness or mood swings, going back to behaviors they had in earlier ages like trouble separating from caregivers or difficulty being alone, disturbed sleep, and difficulty concentrating shortly after experiencing a trauma. They also tend to avoid situations or places that are associated with what has happened to them, have flashbacks or nightmares of the event, as well as feel anxious, easily annoyed, guilty, sad, angry, or ashamed.
Most children and adolescents tend to naturally recover from a traumatic experience as time goes by, but some continue to struggle one month or more after experiencing a traumatic event. Even though long-term pain may be a cause of concern, attention and support is always necessary to deal with the aftermath of trauma.
When should I be concerned about a student’s persistent distress after traumatic experiences?
Signs that a child or adolescent is experiencing persistent distress after a traumatic experience, like being "haunted" by what happened, can include:
Frequently remembering and feeling as if the experience is happening again
Acting out the upsetting event during playtime
Images, sounds or unwanted thoughts about the experience popping into their minds
Nightmares or dreams related to what happened
Feelings of distress when remembering what happened
Avoidance of places, people, or activities that can be reminders of the traumatic experience
Not wanting to or being strongly reluctant to do anything that could be related to the trauma (e.g., riding a car if the trauma is an accident, or wearing the same clothes as the ones worn on the day a bad experience happened)
Negative changes in mood or the way the child perceives the world
Tantrums, moodiness, and mood swings
Being easily annoyed or restless
Having trouble separating from caregivers or being alone
Feelings of guilt, like what happened was their fault, shame, anger, or sadness
Seeing the world as a dangerous or bad place
Losing their interest in school or activities they previously enjoyed
Anxiety symptoms because of being always on alert internally
Expressing fear more often
Difficulty concentrating on several tasks
Getting more easily and more frequently frightened with sudden sounds or unexpected movements
Headaches, stomachaches, or other physical complaints
What can I do to help a student with persistent distress after traumatic experiences?
After exposure to a traumatic experience, teachers usually notice changes in the student behavior in the classroom. So, there are a few things they may attempt:
- Be supportive. It is important for teachers to let the student know what they have noticed and that they are there to help. Teachers can listen and validate without jumping immediately to problem solving, unless the student is specifically asking for help.
- Offer to talk about it if the student wants to. Teachers can ask students if they want to talk about what happened and let them know that they can count on them. It is important for teachers to acknowledge that they are aware of what the student has gone through, without forcing them to talk about it.
- Help the student feel safe in the classroom. All children and adolescents benefit from support and a reassuring pat on the back. It gives them a feeling of security, which is important in the aftermath of a frightening or disturbing event.
- Help the student to enjoy themselves. Encourage children to do activities they usually like and to engage with peers. The distraction may be good for them and give them a sense of normalcy.
- Validate the student's emotions. Teachers can let their students know it is normal to experience anger, guilt, and sadness, and to express things in different ways—for example, a person who is sad may, or may not cry. Express belief in the child's self-competence and provide encouragement.
- Help the student with breathing exercises. Breathing becomes shallow when anxiety sets in; deep breaths can help children calm down. Teachers can say, “Let’s breathe in slowly while I count to three, then breathe out while I count to three” and help their students breathe.
- Bring the concerns to a caregiver’s attention. A student’s caregivers need to know of anything concerning occurring in school. Caregivers may also be able to identify if concerns are present outside of school.
- Seek help from a school mental health professional. Support from a school mental health professional is warranted in most situations when persistent distress after traumatic experiences results in concerns.
- Seek support. With a caregiver’s permission, teachers may consult other professionals who specialize in helping children with emotional difficulties.
Pediatricians or family physicians can help to address initial concerns and refer to specialized professionals. Also, whenever possible, a consultation with a mental health professional may be helpful.
The public system provides services through the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and Centers of Multidisciplinary Assessment, Counseling, and Support (KEDASY).
Distress after traumatic events that are present after more than a month of the occurrence of the event, that is too intense and that negatively interfere with your child and family’s daily lives may indicate the possibility of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Where to find more information
Specific, detailed, and clinical information on Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can be found at [clinical short guide at the program website].
If you want to know more about the closest available services for educational and public health systems for children and adolescent assistance across the country, go to our Services Mapping webpage here.
You can also find more information by pointing your phone camera at the QR code below or by clicking here.