1. What to Expect

1. What to Expect

This section will cover common reactions your child may have after a traumatic event, what psychological recovery can look like, and the importance of parental self-care. 

What counts as a traumatic event?

It can be a difficult time when your child has come back from the Emergency Department after a frightening experience. These experiences can include a range of different events, including:

  • Car/motor accidents
  • Assault
  • Abuse 
  • Other serious accidents (e.g., sporting accidents, falls, burns)
  • Witnessing violence
  • Natural disaster
  • Rape or sexual assault
  • Other very frightening experiences

Whether or not your child was physically hurt also isn’t that important to how traumatic an event is - even if your child was not injured they may still be affected emotionally or mentally. And even children who are badly injured can be absolutely fine otherwise.

What to look out for in your child

A trauma may affect your child in several ways, and children can experience symptoms differently. The key thing to look out for is any new feelings or behaviours after the event, or any new triggers (e.g., going outside, sitting in the car). 

How they react can depend on a number of factors including their age, personality and life experiences so far. 

They may:

  • Be easily upset or angry
  • Feeling worried, scared or unsafe
  • Feeling jumpy
  • Feeling confused
  • Be irritable or uncooperative
  • Feeling empty, numb, or appearing ‘zoned out’
  • Have nightmares (either specific to the event or more general)
  • Have difficulty sleeping
  • Repeatedly talk about the event
  • Not wanting to go to school or go back to usual activities
  • Have bad memories of the event
  • Try to avoid things that remind them of the trauma—for example, not wanting to go where the event took place or to talk about it
  • Physical symptoms (e.g. stomach aches, headaches, appetite changes, and rashes)

These symptoms may be present at home or a school – it may be helpful to ask their teacher if they have noticed any changes in their behaviour.

The important thing to remember is that these symptoms are completely normal after experiencing something frightening.

You may also find that you are feeling some of these symptoms yourself. It is normal to experience worries, low mood, or physical symptoms if you witnessed or learned of something happening to someone.

Explore the tabs below to learn about your child's psychological recovery and signs to look out for. Once you have finished reading, you can explore activities you can do at the bottom of the page. 

The usual advice is to ‘wait and see’ for around 4-6 weeks, however, if your child is very upset and their symptoms are having a big impact on their daily life (e.g., going to school, day-to-day activities), consider seeking advice from your GP sooner.

Some signs which can indicate that it may be time to seek professional support if:

  • Your child’s symptoms are not improving, or symptoms are getting more difficult after around 6 weeks.
  • Your child is doing worse or is avoiding school completely.
  • There is increasing pressure on the family.
  • Your child is continuing to experience frightening memories, nightmares, or flashbacks.
  • Your child is experiencing suicidal thoughts.
  • Your child’s avoidance of things reminding them of the event is increasing.

The important thing to remember is that these reactions are likely to improve with time and support. The best thing you can do is to be patient and provide a safe and nurturing environment for both you and your child.

The good news is that for most children these effects are short term.

If your child is not back to their usual self after a month, and is struggling to cope, they may need professional support. There is good evidence that, with extra support, children can recover well.

Yes. The changes in your child's behaviour following a trauma often depend on their age. 

Younger children

Your child may:

  • Be more clingy than before
  • Wet the bed
  • Act younger than they did before
  • Talk less than before or not talk at all
  • Act out what happened in play—for example, banging toy cars together to recreate a car crash

Older children and teens

Your child may:

  • Have problems sleeping.
  • Have problems eating.
  • Have trouble concentrating.
  • Complain of headaches, a sore stomach, or other minor illnesses.
  • Not want to do things they did before—for example, spending time with friends.


Speak to your child. Ask how they feel they are coping after their trauma—and if they would like some extra help.

Let them know that it is normal to feel difficult emotions or thoughts after going through something scary. 

It is important to not force your child to talk - let them know that you are there if they wish to talk about what happened or about anything they maybe struggling with. 

It is also important to take care of your own emotions – both for your own feelings, and to be a good role model for your child. Your signals and messages can be internalised by your child and influence how they may react.  

Checking in with yourself can help you be there for your child. The most important thing is that you are a safe and predictable source of support.

Taking care of yourself can look like:

  • Having time to yourself and do something that you enjoy.
  • Sharing caregiving responsibilities with someone else, if this is possible.
  • Reaching out to others and seeking support from loved ones.

As you take care of yourself, you can prevent your cup from overflowing so you have enough resources to be a safe, predictable and empathetic source of support for child

Taking Care of Yourself

It is completely normal for parents to feel guilty or upset after their child's traumatic event.

Many parents feel a sense of guilt and self-blame after a child’s scary experience. This can be about not being able to prevent the accident, the child’s physical injury and hospital experience, or not knowing how to help your child.

This can mean that you may be having worrisome and unhelpful thoughts yourself (e.g., ‘I should have…’, ‘I could have…’, ‘Why did I not...?’)

It is natural to want to protect your child and feel deeply upset when they experience something frightening or are distressed. However, parents are likely to overestimate their ability to prevent unpredictable events.

The most important thing here is to be aware when your own thoughts may be becoming unhelpful.

This may mean:

  • Seeking support from loved ones or your support network yourself.
  • Talking through how you are feeling.
  • Making sense of and rationalising your own unhelpful thoughts.
  • Make some time for yourself to do something you enjoy.
  • Trying to stick to your usual routine as much as possible.
  • Ask for practical help if you need it—for example, with cooking, cleaning, childcare and so on.
  • Don’t try to take on too much—no one expects you to be a child therapist.
  • See your GP if you are struggling and need extra support.

Taking care of your own emotions and mental health can reduce the chance of these unhelpful behaviours and thoughts from slipping through and allow you to sensitively respond to your child’s needs.

Even if you weren’t there at the time, your child’s trauma may affect how you think, feel and behave. For example:


  • Having unwanted and distressing thoughts or memories
  • Intense nightmares or ‘flashbacks’ to the trauma
  • Avoiding thinking about what happened
  • Thinking you and those around you are very unsafe or vulnerable
  • Continuous worry about your own or your child’s recovery


  • Irritability and/or anger
  • Upset and/or distress
  • Finding it hard to feel happy 


  • Difficulty eating and/or sleeping
  • An overwhelming focus on keeping your child safe
  • Avoiding things that remind you of what happened

It can vary. You may find that:

  • You feel back to normal very quickly
  • You experience some of the reactions described but, things start to improve within a few weeks or months
  • You are so upset by your child’s trauma that your distress starts to interfere with your—and/or your child’s—daily life. For example, you may be unable to go to work, or stop your child taking part in activities or sports for fear they will come to harm.
  • Your difficulties do not go away and/or become worse with time

A ‘wait-and-see’ period of four weeks is usually recommended to give time for things to settle down on their own. Seek help or advice from your GP if you:

  • Are still feeling very distressed after four weeks
  • Are finding that your reactions are getting in the way of things you usually do or enjoy
  • Are not seeing any signs of improvement in your reactions

Parents can be strongly affected when something serious happens to their child. Although it is natural to want to put your child first, it is important to get help for yourself if you need it.


There is no clear answer to this, but being upset about what happened is normal. If your child sees you are upset or angry:

  • Reassure them that it is okay to feel upset sometimes but that you are doing okay
  • Explain why you are upset and tell them you should feel better soon

Even if you are extremely distressed, it doesn’t follow that your child is struggling too. If you think your own feelings could be making you more worried about your child, check with others how they think your child is coping.

Summary and Activities

In this section we learned that it is normal for both you and your child to experience some difficult feelings following your child's frightening experience. These symptoms typically go away with time, support, and patience. The important thing it to be a safe and patient source of support for your child, and to take care of yourself. 

Below are some activities you can do over the next few days to notice these feelings. 


The aim of these activities is to be aware of what your child may be experiencing, normalising what they may be feeling, and understand that with support and patience, difficult feelings are likely to pass.

You can do either or both of these activities, and you can do them with your child if they feel ready to engage. If they don’t feel ready, that is totally fine – let them know that the opportunity to talk and work through things will be there when they are ready.

Activity one: Noticing feelings 

Activity two: Safety plan