What to Expect

What to Expect

Millions of children and teens experience traumatic or upsetting events each year. Luckily most fully recover—physically and mentally.

Here you will learn:

  • How to identify different types of traumatic events
  • What effects these events may have on your child
  • How they may affect children of different ages
  • When to seek professional help

What counts as a traumatic event?

Traumatic events come in many different forms. They may include:

  • Assault
  • Abuse
  • Natural disaster
  • Car accident (as a passenger or being hit by a car)
  • Other serious accidents (such as sporting accidents, falls, burns)
  • Rape or sexual assault
  • Witnessing violence at home or elsewhere
  • Other very frightening experiences

Seeing these things happening to someone else may just be as traumatic as experiencing them directly. For parents, this means having something very serious happen to your child may impact you as well as your child.

Whether or not your child was hurt also isn’t that important to how traumatic an event is - even if your child was not injured they may still be affected psychologically, and even children who are badly hurt 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 jumpier or more on edge than usual
  • Be more irritable and/or more aggressive than usual
  • Have bad memories of the event
  • Experience nightmares
  • Feel worried, scared or unsafe
  • 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

These are symptoms of what we call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and it is not unusual for children to experience some or all these following a trauma. You may notice some of these symptoms or reactions in your child.

If your child goes to school, ask their teacher if they have noticed any changes in their behaviour.

You may also recognize some of these reactions in yourself. See our section on Looking after Yourself.

Not all children react in the same way. Your child may:

  • Be unaffected and carry on as before
  • At first, behave in some of the ways described above, but return to normal in time without professional help
  • Be so upset that day-to-day activities become hard—for example, they may not want to see friends or go to school—or have problems that last for many weeks or months.

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

It is normal for children to suffer some distress, at least to start with, after a trauma. The good news is that for most children these effects are short term. If your child is not back to their usual self after several months, and is struggling to cope, they may need professional support. There is good evidence that, with extra support, children can recover well.


Find out more about how to support your child here, or about how to get professional help here.

Keep an eye out for the signs described. Seek advice from your GP if:

  • Your child shows no signs of improving within a month
  • They seem to be getting worse
  • Their reactions are stopping them getting on with day-to-day activities—for example, going to school, doing homework, socialising with friends
  • Family life is becoming hard

You and your child are the best judges of how they are coping. Because it can be quite normal for children to experience some distress after a trauma, the usual advice is to 'wait and see' for about a month, to see if they get better over time. However, if your child is very upset and this is having a big impact on their daily lives, consider seeking advice from your GP sooner.

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

Yes, after a frightening event, it can take up to six months to recover fully. The main thing is that you are seeing some improvement.

Not necessarily. Many children who are badly injured fully recover mentally and are fine in the long term. There is no good evidence that children who are seriously hurt are any more likely to be distressed than those with less severe injuries. The key is to keep an eye out for changes in your child’s behaviour over time and ask how they are feeling.

The chances are they will. Research shows that most children respond well to talking therapies such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy.