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Helping Your Young Child (0-5 years) Cope with Trauma

How to Help Your Young Child (0-5 years) Cope with Trauma

When a young child goes through an upsetting or scary event, they will need support, patience, and understanding to help them cope. Most children have big worries after a traumatic event. But most return to their typical selves over time. Love and support from you and other caregivers are important.

A Young Child’s Response to Trauma

Trauma can affect all aspects of a child’s life.

Infants and toddlers do not have the language to share their worries. Preschoolers have not fully developed skills to express their feelings. Because of this, younger children who have gone through a traumatic event may change their behavior as a way of coping. Examples of these behavior changes may be:

  • Acting out
  • Crying
  • Being clingy
  • Regressing, this may include sucking their thumb or bed wetting.
  • Feeling sick

Your Response Can Help

Since children at this age cannot clearly communicate their feelings, it can be hard knowing how to help. Know that your child’s change in behavior is their way of coping. It is not just bad behavior. This will help your child heal. Also, staying calm and reminding your child that you are here to keep them safe will help them cope.

This type of support can be difficult at times. Remember this: “I am doing the best I can with what I have in this moment. That is all I can expect from anyone, including me.”

If your child’s trauma symptoms do not improve over time or get in the way of their daily life or typical activities, go with your child to a mental health professional. If you have concerns for your child’s immediate safety, go to the Emergency Department.

Remember, healing takes time.

Information to help you provide support and comfort to your child

Things your child may want you to know, but can't express:

  • I may not have the words to tell you what happened to me. I am confused.
  • I may tell you I miss the person who did this to me and get very sad. I may also not have the words to tell you this.
  • Sometimes I worry that I am not safe. I might cry or act out before going to bed.
  • I worry something may happen when I am away from you. I don’t want to let you go. I may get upset when you leave me at preschool or childcare.
  • My body is stressed. I might complain of tummy aches or headaches or fuss for no obvious reason.
  • My mind is stressed. My emotions can be overwhelming. I may act out or not listen. I may act like a baby, suck my thumb, or wet my clothes.
  • Sometimes I keep thinking about the abuse. I may act it out with my dolls and toys. This is my way of trying to understand what happened.
  • I don’t want to see you sad and worry that talking about this hurts you.
  • Going to places that remind me of what happened or the person who did this makes me feel unsafe.

You help your child when:

  • Let your child know that you love them. Stay calm when they are upset. Your reassuring voice and love makes them feel better.
  • Give your child words for their feelings. “I can see that you are very sad right now. It is okay to miss seeing...”
  • Having a bedtime routine helps your child feel safe. Help them relax by reading stories with them, listen to music, and let them keep a light on if needed.
  • Remind your of the people in their life that love them and will keep them safe, including you and their teachers. When your child goes to school send them with a reminder of you. Examples are a picture or their favorite blanket. Let their teachers know that they need extra support right now.
  • Help your child feel calm. Take three deep breaths with them throughout the day. When they see you relax and breathe deeply it shows them that I can stay calm too.
  • Get your child back to their routines and activities. They feel safer when they know what to expect. Give them options when possible so they feel a sense of control. Just picking out clothes for the day or deciding breakfast can help them feel more in control.
  • Use words that can help your child understand their abuse. Tell them the truth. Let them know that what happened was not okay, but that they are safe now.
  • Don’t get mad if your child don’t want to talk about what happened or the person who did this. It brings back feelings of being helpless and scared.
  • Tell your child you understand that it is too hard to do things or go places that remind them of what happened. Let them know it will get easier.

Last Updated 02/2022

Reviewed By Sarah Zawaly, Clinical Program Manager

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The Mayerson Center for Safe and Healthy Children at Cincinnati Children’s is a premier program that has helped set the national standard for enhancing and strengthening evaluations of child abuse and trauma.