Helping Children Cope After a Traumatic Event

Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center offers the following information for helping kids cope with traumatic events such as war and terrorism.

  • Maintain structure / support / regular routine. Keep family routines, such as meal times, activities and bedtimes, as close to normal as possible. Continue school attendance if possible.
  • Listen to children. Children may experience depression, sadness, anxiety, fears and anger. It is a normal response for children to regress when emotions are heightened by a traumatic event.

    Children may experience a return to earlier behavior, such as thumb-sucking and bed-wetting. Children may cling more to parents, and they may be more frightened of going to sleep or being in the dark.

    Adults should provide lots of reassurance through statements such as, "It will be ok.", or "I will keep you safe."
  • Be careful what you say to children. Reinforce the idea that adults will keep children safe. Don't talk about destruction, "World War III", racial or ethnic issues related or suspected to be related to the event. If you are angry and need to vent, do so with another adult in a private place.
  • Humor is ok. If humor is inappropriate, gently redirect it.
  • Distraction and activity are ok. It is appropriate for children to play games, color or draw.
  • Ask how children feel. It is okay to ask how children are feeling and also to inquire what specifics are making the child feel bad. For very upset children, it is reasonable to ask questions regarding self-harm or aggressive thoughts.
  • Adults need to talk to other adults. Adults may feel overwhelmed. When this happens, they should talk to other adults, rather than to or in front of children.

    Taking time to talk to each other or to vent can be helpful to facilitate an ability to work more constructively.
  • Determine whether further intervention is needed. A child or family member may need further intervention when there is evidence of intense anxiety or "avoiding" behaviors; physical symptoms such as persistent nausea, persistent headaches, weight loss or gain; frequent nightmares or other sleep disturbance; or an inability to focus on other life events.

If you have any questions, please contact your pediatrician, clinic or primary care provider, or the Division of Psychiatry at Cincinnati Children's.

Last Updated 06/2011