How do children respond to sudden deaths and trauma?
After a traumatic event or sudden bereavement, children can react in very different ways. Several inter-relating factors that can influence how well a child copes. In this blog, bereavement expert Erica Brown discusses the impact that trauma can have on children, and provides advice on how children can best be supported.
Sudden deaths such as road crashes occur unexpectedly, turning everyday experiences upside down and destroying the belief that ‘it couldn’t happen to us’.
Children’s responses to trauma
A road crash where someone dies is a traumatic event, and children’s responses to the trauma they experience will vary widely. For some children, reactions will be minimal or short-lived, whereas others will experience anxiety, fear and phobias. Sleep disturbances are also common, and many children have problems at school, both with their learning and their behaviour.
Little is known about children’s individual responses to traumatic events, or why some children are more vulnerable than others. A child’s individual personality, and the amount of time that they were exposed to the event, can influence their response. Severe reactions are linked to the suddenness of the event, and the degree to which the child was rendered powerless during the trauma.
Stress reactions in children are complex, but they are in fact normal human responses to unanticipated sudden and frightening events. The child’s world has become unpredictable. In some cases, the nature of the trauma seems to determine the nature of the stress. If the trauma involved noise, some children may experience more intense reactions. Likewise, injury or threat to life may cause particularly severe traumatic responses. Other factors such as the duration of exposure to the trauma, and whether the event was experienced in isolation or with other people, can play a significant part in how a child responds.
Matt was 12 when he witnessed a fatal road crash. He was returning from school at the end of the day. It was dark and raining. Suddenly, in front of him, a car overtook an oil tanker and hit a car coming in the opposite direction. The cars hit head on and one was thrown under the wheels of the tanker, leaving only the rear visible.
For Matt, imagery of the event is one of the recurring effects of trauma: “It all happened so fast and to this day I can remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, there is going to be a prang!’ The noise of the skidding and of the metal buckling under the tanker wheels keeps haunting me. It is as if a recording has been made in my mind and it keeps replaying all the time. I am just dozing off at night and I hear the dreadful skidding and squealing of brakes.”
Some children experience a phase of denial and numbing immediately after a stressful event. After this phase the child may be confronted with intrusive, repetitive recollections of the event, including nightmares and flashbacks.
Searching for meaning
All survivors of traumatic events need to make sense of their experience. For children there may be questions such as ‘Why did it happen to me?’, ‘Why did I survive?’ and ‘Why do I feel the way I do?’
Many children believe they were in some way responsible for what happened. Others may be confused about why they were singled out to witness the event. Why a child has survived when others haven’t may pose a myriad of questions to which there are no definitive answers. These questions often lie at the heart of survivor guilt.
Children may also battle with the intensity of their emotions and may not have the language to describe how they feel. Some may not have experienced intense emotions before, and it is not unusual for them to attempt to repress unknown feelings. The world is unfamiliar and frightening.
Coping and support
How well a child copes after a traumatic event is dependent on several inter-relating factors. These include the child’s cognitive ability and capacity to express emotions, the maintenance of familiar routines and levels of support from within and outside the child’s home.
For anyone supporting a child who has experienced trauma, there are both proactive and reactive ways of giving support.
Proactive ways of supporting children include providing opportunities for the child to communicate their experiences, acknowledging the trauma they are experiencing, and allowing opportunities for them to integrate the traumatic event into their life and to move on. The help of specialist support networks may also be required.
More reactive ways of giving support include reassuring the child that their response is normal, keeping routines as normal as possible and encouraging the child to join in activities with their peers. It’s also important to work closely with other professionals who are supporting the child’s family.
About the author
Erica is a qualified teacher and has worked in a variety of roles in the Education and University Sectors. She has experience of teaching Early Years classes and has worked as a Senior Teacher, Head of Department and Head Teacher in Special Schools.
Erica’s academic career has included roles as Senior Lecturer, Principal Lecturer and Principal Research Fellow. She has also worked as Head of Research and Development of Care at Acorns Children’s Hospice and Head of Special Education at Oxford Brookes University.
Erica’s recent research interests have involved supporting children and families who are experiencing loss, and in 2012 she was made a fellow of The Royal Society of Arts in recognition of her work with life-limited children, young people and their families.