Common Youth Reactions to Traumatic Events and Appropriate Responses from Adults

Ozone House General Blog

AGE 2 to 6: Reaction

  • Generalized fear
  • Cognitive confusion, e.g., not understanding that the danger is over
  • Helplessness, passivity, e.g. may become mute, withdrawn, and still
  • Anxious attachment to caregiver, e.g., clinging, not wanting to be away from caregiver, not wanting to sleep alone
  • Sleep disturbances; night terrors
  • Regressive reactions, e.g., toileting, dressing, speech
  • Engaging in reenactments and play about the event; sometimes with magical qualities/character of the event
  • Incomplete understanding of death; e.g., permanency of death, association with sleep, a desire to “fix up” the deceased
  • Difficulty identifying and expressing what is wrong; e.g., periodic sadness 

AGE 2 to 6: Adult Response

  • Need rapid reassurance that they will be okay and taken care of
  • Reestablish familiar adult protection
  • Give repeated concrete clarification of what has happened and anticipate their concerns
  • Provide support, rest, comfort, food, and opportunities to play
  • Provide consistent care taking; e.g., assurance of being picked up at school, keeping a regular meal schedule, bedtime and when caregivers will be home
  • Be as tolerant as possible with regressive behavior; it is temporary
  • Try to remove the association of what happened with specific trigger/reminders; e.g., playgrounds, cars
  • Explain the reality of death in age appropriate terms, when the child is open; e.g. a private moment, or while reading

AGE: 6 to 10: Reaction

  • Impaired concentration and learning difficulties affecting performance at school
  • Radical change in behavior, e.g., quiet child becomes active; active child, lethargic
  • Somatic complaints, such as headaches
  • Retelling the event with great detail and “savior” endings
  • Preoccupation with their behavior during or leading up to the event with feelings of guilt and responsibility
  • Specific fears triggered by reminders or while alone
  • Fear of being overwhelmed by their own feelings
  • Increased difficulty controlling their own behavior and feeling frightened by this lack of control 

AGE: 6 to 10: Adult Response

  • Allow enough “free” supervised time for play or expression through art, music, or dance
  • Encourage your child to let you or the teacher know that they may be having a hard time concentrating while at school
  • Try to be patient with any behavior changes
  • Reassure the child that s/he will be safe and there are people around to help
  • Help your child associate emotional and physical sensations s/he may have had during the event and suggest ways of helping her/him feel better; e.g., changing the subject, doing something else
  • As with play, allow time to talk; acknowledge the normalcy of the reaction, what secret images s/he may have, and what specific reminders s/he may have
  • The supportive presence of adults will help the child not to be so overwhelmed, and help remind her/him that feelings lead to actions s/he may not like or cannot control. Help her/him to establish a sense of control by doing something proactive, such as organizing a collection drive, making cards to send to those in need, or making red, white and blue ribbons for friends and classmates to wear.

AGE 10 to 14: Reaction

  • Become more childlike in attitude
  • Be very angry at the unfairness of the event
  • Manifest euphoria and excitement at survival
  • “See” symbolic meaning to things that led up to the event and assign symbolic reasons for survival
  • Suppress thoughts and feelings to avoid confronting the event
  • Be self-judgmental about their own behavior
  • Manifest psychosomatic illness

AGE 10 to 14: Adult Response

  • Try to respond to the emotions that are underlying the behavior and reinforce more mature behavior by including them in the resolution of problems.
  • Encourage talking about the event in private moments. Discussions in front of others can lead to emotional reactions.
  • Encourage supervised/supportive discussions about the event with peers if peers have been part of the event. Peers can inflame the reaction if not given some support and guidance.
  • Provide realistic assessments of personal responsibility and “what could have been done”
  • Help keep things in perspective e.g. “These feelings will not last forever.” “You can shape your own future.”
  • Help them establish a sense of control by allowing them to do something pro-active such as organizing a collection drive (which the schools has done) or make and send cards to the family.

AGE Adolescent to Adult: Reaction

  • Feel anger, shame, betrayal and act out these feelings in school or the community.
  • May want to move into the adult world to get away from traumatic events and establish a sense of control over their world.
  • Very judgmental about their behavior and that of others.
  • Eating and sleeping disorders.
  • May have an enhanced sense of immortality or an increased sense of hopelessness.
  • Depressions
  • Alcohol and drug use may become a problem.
  • May engage in high-risk behavior
  • May have a fear of being labeled “abnormal”. 

AGE Adolescent to Adult: Adult Response

  • Acting out may be a way of “pushing the event away”. Help them understand that might be what is going on.
  • Encourage postponing major decisions in order to allow time for emotions to settle down and to grieve if necessary.
  • Speak to emotions that are underlying the behavior. “This must be a very frustrating, angry time.”
  • Help them understand the adult nature of what they are feeling, encourage peer understanding and support.
  • Help them not to overreact to the impact this may have on their lives, help them grow from it, not lost in it.
  • Acknowledge the “depressed” feeling that may come and that is survivable and normal.
  • Acknowledge the anger they may be feeling, and explain how it can contribute to their sense of being “out of control” and “wanting to do something”.
  • Encourage them to do something pro-active such as donating blood, if old enough, or volunteering to help at the Red Cross or other organizations.

For all ages:

  • Give reassurances and hugs
  • Assure them they and their families are safe (if this is the case)
  • Limit their exposure to graphic details
  • Let them talk and reassure them and solicit their ideas and feelings 

– Compiled by Michael B. Murphy (Washtenaw County Crisis Manager)