“Everyone grieves at a different pace,” says psychologist Dr. Jerry Bubrick of the nonprofit Child Mind Institute. “If a child seems to be coping well now, they might still have a poor reaction later.”
With school shootings and other traumatic events happening to kids on a nearly routine basis, it’s important to remember that children don’t always respond to trauma and grief the way adults do. Due to inexperience or their stage in development, they may not have the skills to manage their emotions. They may need a parent to help them process those emotions — or they may need a professional’s help.
Your child’s immediate reaction to a traumatic event may be telling, or it may not be. The extent to which the event actually traumatizes a child is based on a variety of factors, including whether they lost a close friend or peer, how they learned about the event, how their parents react to the trauma, television coverage and more.
It’s important to soothe and comfort your child right away, but you’ll also want to keep an eye out for signs that they’re not coping in the longer term. Lasting harm may not be evident until three or six months after the event.
Signs of post-traumatic stress disorder
A childhood trauma need not be as serious as a school shooting to cause long-term effects. That said, many children experience trauma in our society. This can be due to a particular event such as a house fire. Or, a close friend might die of cancer. Ongoing abuse can be traumatic and hard to spot.
Don’t miss the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Even if the symptoms don’t reach the level of PTSD, they can be extremely uncomfortable and interfere with your child’s happiness and growth.
A focus on safety, mortality or death
Some kids are naturally fascinated by death, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. PTSD or a similar problem coping often shows itself in anxiety and fear for their own safety. Naturally, some traumatic events do cause us to fear for our own safety, but most people are able to move on with their lives.
Be concerned if your child seems to be obsessed with their personal safety or the safety of loved ones. They may be experiencing disturbing, intrusive thoughts about the traumatic event recurring or other traumatic events happening.
Disturbances in sleep, eating, focus or emotion
Some symptoms of PTSD are similar to those of depression and can include getting too little or too much sleep, overeating or loss of appetite, being quick to anger or irritation and problems focusing. Other symptoms mimic those of an anxiety disorder, such as pervasive worrying and separation anxiety.
If a traumatic event is associated with school, it’s natural to need a few days off before returning. “But if, over time, it’s not really lifting and it’s continuing, it may result in school refusal altogether. At that point we definitely know the child needs help,” says Dr. Bubrick.
Symptoms may increase with triggers
Your child may seem to have coped with the trauma in a healthy way. Then, on the event’s anniversary, your child starts experiencing symptoms again. This could be an indication that they need more help.
Finally, don’t dismiss these symptoms simply because you’re unaware of any particular trauma your child may have experienced. Treatment of the symptoms will generally involve talk therapy, which could identify their source.