After experiencing a severe trauma or being prolonged or repeatedly exposed to traumatic events, it’s very common and normal that children and adolescents have bad memories (trauma-related images, sounds, thoughts etc.) that pop up at unexpected times, even long after. Children and adolescents may also have more nightmares or display trauma-related play behavior.
- After traumatic events, it’s very common for children and adolescents to have nightmares.
- The content of the nightmares might not be connected to the traumatic events.
- Help your child to understand that nightmares are a normal and a common reaction after traumatic events.
- If your child wakes up in the middle of the night because of nightmares, make sure that they are fully awake and soothe them. Help your child feel safe and help them to fall asleep again by soothing them. Do not start extensive talks or discussion in the mid of night.
- Sometimes it is helpful to use a nightlight in your child’s room or to give your child their favorite cuddly toy or something that reminds them of you (e.g. pillow or scarf).
- If your child remembers the nightmare in the morning, it’s helpful to talk about it and soothe them.
Recurring memories of the traumatic event
- A lot of children and adolescents experience recurring memories of what they went through and feel upset and sad.
- Explain to your child that the bad memories and the fears are trauma-related.
- Help your child face situations that are related to what they went through (for instance, people, places, sounds, smells, feelings, time of day).
- Help your child to understand that remembering something from the past doesn’t mean experiencing it again in the present. Memories are always about something in the past.
- Encourage your child to face fearful situations and praise your child when they succeed in doing so. Encourage and praise courageous behavior.
- You can help your child by showing them how to distract themselves or take a break from bad thoughts and think of something nice (such as your child’s last birthday party).
- Do something nice with your child and help them to think about pleasant memories of doing something fun, meeting friends, or doing other nice activities.
Feeling emotionally upset when remembering the traumatic event
- It’s normal that children and adolescents get extremely distressed when they are reminded of what happened to them.
- Calm your child and explain to them that it’s normal that they get upset more easily when remembered.
- You can try a simple breathing exercise with your child to reduce distress: counting to 3 while breathing in, counting to 5 while breathing out. Repeat 10-20 times.
- Encourage your child to talk about their worries and offer your child different ways to express themselves (emoticons, drawing, etc.).
Repetitive trauma-related play
- A lot of children replay trauma-related scenes.
- Young children find it particularly difficult to express their feelings and thoughts in words. It’s helpful for the child to express these by playing or drawing.
- If your child often plays the same trauma-related scene (e.g. physical abuse), join the play and help him or her to find a happy ending (e.g. by protecting threatened figures).
- Let your child know that you and other adults protect them. Tell them about concrete instances.
- Encourage your child to engage in other, non-trauma related, play as well.
Acting as if the traumatic event would happen again
- After traumatic events, a lot of children and adolescents are afraid of re-experiencing what happened to them.
- Assure your child as much as necessary that they are safe.
- Explain to your child that it’s normal to feel sad, frightened or angry when they remember the traumatic events.
- Let your child write down their worries and encourage your child to speak about them.
- Relaxation exercises (for instance, simple breathing exercises like counting to 3 while breathing in and counting to 5 while breathing out) can help. Repeat 10-20 times.