Helping Traumatized Children
5. Do children understand events accurately?
Young children often make false assumptions about the causes of major events. Unfortunately these assumptions may include some sense that they were at fault for the event—including the death of a loved one. Adults often assume that causality is clear—dying in a car accident, being shot in a drive-by shooting, dying in a fire. The child may very easily distort an event and make the wrong conclusions about causality. Mom died in the car accident because she was coming to get me at school. The other driver was mad at her. My brother is dead because he was helping me with my homework. The person that shot my brother was shooting at me and hit my brother because he was in my room. The tornado was God's way of punishing my family. In many of these distorted explanations, children assume some degree of responsibility for some element of the traumatic event. This can lead to very destructive and inappropriate feelings of guilt.
Be clear. Explore the child's evolving sense of causality. Correct and clarify as you see false reasoning develop. Over time, the ability of the child to cope is related to the ability of the child to understand. While some elements of trauma seem beyond understanding, this can be explained to a child—some things we don't know. Don't let the child develop a sense that there is a secret about the event—this can be very destructive. Let the child know that adults can not and will not understand some things either.
6. Do all children have problems after traumatic events?
The majority of children experiencing trauma will have some change in their behaviors and their emotional functioning. In addition to the symptoms listed above, these children will often be more irritable, tired and regressed. Fortunately, however, for the majority of these children these symptoms are short-lived. Some children may exhibit no easily observable changes in their thinking, feeling or behaving. In general, the more threatened a child felt, the closer they were to injury or death, the more the event disrupted or traumatized their family or community, the more likely there will be symptoms. In some cases, children's symptoms do not show up for many weeks or even months after the traumatic event, confusing many caregivers. Indeed, in these cases, caregivers or teachers may not even make a connection between the symptoms and the traumatic event.