Supporting your child with trauma
Information and practical advice to help you support your child if they're struggling with trauma.
Everyone experiences upsetting and difficult situations – and it is normal to feel sad, stressed or distressed sometimes. When difficult things happen, lots of young people will be able to find the support they need and feel better with time. Sometimes, however, certain events or experiences can be traumatic – and these can leave a young person struggling with their mental health over a much longer period of time.
If you’re worried that your child is struggling after a trauma, the important thing to know as their parent is that you can provide an incredibly important part of the help they need – emotional support and a loving, safe relationship. By being there for them and finding the right professional help if they need it, you can make an enormous difference.
What is trauma?
‘Trauma’ is used to describe both one-off events and things that are experienced over months or years, for example within a young person’s family or peer relationships. A traumatic experience often involves a threat to a young person’s physical or emotional safety, and a sense of being trapped, powerless or unsupported in the face of a perceived danger or in the time afterwards.
On our Parents Helpline, we hear about children and young people struggling with trauma when they have experienced or witnessed things such as:
- a violent or frightening event such as an assault or car accident
- domestic violence or abuse
- feeling unsafe at home
- being bullied
- losing a family member or friend to suicide, or a sudden death in the family
- going through a physical illness or time in hospital
- being exposed to frightening or inappropriate online content
Ultimately, whether or not an event or experience is traumatic for a young person depends on how it makes them feel as an individual. One child can find an event traumatic while another does not. The way we react to and experience what happens to us is shaped by all kinds of factors – from our personality to our life history, the support available to us, our relationships, our community and our culture.
What are the signs my child is affected by trauma?
Every child and young person will respond differently to trauma. This means it can be difficult for you to spot the signs, or to see the links between a previous traumatic experience and your child’s current feelings and behaviour. Sometimes your child may not be aware of the links themselves.
Your child may show they are struggling immediately after a traumatic experience, or feelings, thoughts and behaviours may emerge over time. There may be times when things feel intensely difficult, and then they might feel better for a while.
While there is no exhaustive list, these are some things you may see your child doing or experiencing following a trauma:
- having memories, thoughts or flashbacks that seem to come suddenly from nowhere (often called ‘intrusive’ thoughts)
- acting out or having angry or aggressive outbursts
- finding it difficult to calm down when they are distressed
- withdrawing from friends, family, school and activities they usually enjoy
- repeating certain behaviours or seeming agitated
- avoiding thinking about, talking about or being in situations which are related to a particular experience
- seeming sensitive or vigilant about anything that could be threatening
- seeming zoned-out or disconnected from themselves, their feelings and what’s going on around them
- having trouble remembering things
- not feeling able to sleep or having nightmares
- using drugs or alcohol differently to how they did before, or starting to for the first time
- eating significantly more or less
These responses are often a young person’s way of trying to manage and express difficult feelings. They may feel that some of these behaviours help them to survive or cope, make sense of what’s happened, or have a sense of safety and control.
Underneath these kinds of behaviours, a young person who has experienced trauma may be feeling:
- low or depressed
- bad about themselves
Trauma and mental health conditions
Trauma is not a mental health condition in itself, but experiencing trauma can result in a young person struggling with their mental health. A wide range of mental health conditions and symptoms can be linked to trauma, including anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), eating disorders and self-harming behaviours.
Depending on their experience, some young people can be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Someone experiencing PTSD will often have flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts that can appear at any time or ‘from nowhere’, and strong feelings or reactions in response to reminders of a particular event or experience. They may also avoid particular memories, thoughts and feelings related to the distressing experience, as well as people, places or activities that remind them of it.
Another diagnosis directly related to trauma is complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD). A young person who is diagnosed with this will be experiencing more severe symptoms and is likely to have gone through a childhood trauma that lasted a long time, such as abuse.
How can I help my child?
It is normal for a young person to feel or behave differently after a distressing or traumatic event or experience. As their parent, it’s important to give them time to process and adjust to what’s happened, while keeping an eye on how they’re doing and seeking further help if it’s needed.
These are things you can do to help them:
- Offer opportunities for them to talk to you, letting them speak as often and for as long as they need to. Helping your child to make sense of what’s happened and how they’re feeling can make an enormous difference. You can find tips on starting a conversation with your child here.
- Validate their feelings. Reflect back the words they use and don’t be afraid of using big words such as terrified, horrified or furious. You might say 'it's really understandable that you're feeling...' to let them know that you’ve got it and their feelings are okay. You can find our tips on responding to your child here.
Be their anchor. A traumatic experience often involves feeling unsafe, frightened or out of control. Providing structure, routine and reassurance that you can support them to manage things can help them re-establish a sense of safety.
- Reassure them. Let them know you love them, you’re there for them and you can help them find the right support if they need it.
If you’re not sure what’s going on, think together about what’s making them feel this way. If something that’s traumatic for your child is still happening, such as being bullied, it needs to be addressed so that it stops.
- Spend quality time doing things your child enjoys. This might be drawing, making something, listening to music, playing sport, cooking or watching a favourite film. Doing these kinds of activities can give your child a break and help them to feel safe and relaxed, even if just for a little while.
- Think together about what helps them cope with difficult feelings. Knowing what works and trusting that they can help themselves when things are hard will help to build your child’s belief in their ability to cope. Strategies could include running, drawing, listening to music, writing in a journal, talking to family or friends, watching a favourite film or reading a favourite book.
- Seek professional support if you’re worried. Some young people who have experienced trauma will need professional and specialist help to feel better. If you’re worried that your child is struggling, seek professional advice.
Young people want the adults supporting them to:
- know that everyone's experience is different, and it doesn't define who I am
- recognise all of my needs and see me as a whole person
- understand my behaviour. When I'm shouting, crying, hiding, stealing, hitting out at myself or others I'm just trying to make sense of everything I've gone through. I'm not wrong, damaged, mad or bad
- find a way to communicate that works for me
- include me in decisions about my life – ask me what I want to happen
- build on my strength and help me find new ways to recover
- understand that I want to talk to someone who has been through the same thing. It helps me make sense of what I've experienced and shows me I am not alone
- remember not to label me with my experience – I’m not a label, I’m me
Where can I find professional help?
GP and Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS)
If you’re worried about your child’s mental health, speak to your GP. This is usually the first step to accessing mental health services.
Together you can discuss whether referral to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), an assessment by a mental health specialist or referral for another kind of support is needed.
You can speak to your GP with or without your child.
Emotional support services
If your child needs to talk and they would find it helpful to open up to someone outside of the family, let them know about the phone, webchat, email and text support they can access through the services listed at the end of this guide.
Counselling and therapy
Counsellors and therapists can provide emotional support and help your child to make sense of their feelings. Therapists working with younger children will usually do this through play and arts activities such as painting, drawing and making things.
Alongside seeking counselling support through your GP, you can also access counselling and therapy in other ways.
- Ask your child’s school if they provide a counselling service
- Search online for free or subsidised counselling in your area, and/or use the Youth Access directory
- If it’s an affordable option for you, you can find a private counsellor, therapist or family therapist using the directories listed in our guide.
If you decide to seek help from a counsellor or therapist, seek advice from your GP too in case your child needs a referral for specialist help. It’s a good idea to find a therapist who has experience of working with trauma.
Your child’s school
If your child is struggling, be open with the school about what’s going on and what support they need.
Depending on their age, it can be important to make sure your child feels some control over the information that’s shared about them. It might help to discuss with your child whether there’s a particular member of staff at school who they would feel comfortable for you to speak to in the first instance.
Alongside counselling, schools can often provide support from the pastoral team, a member of staff who your child can chat to when they need to, mentoring, peer buddying and clubs and activities.
How can I look after myself?
Supporting a young person who has gone through a trauma can be a very emotional experience, so take time to look after yourself and top up your own batteries. In order to support your child, you need to keep looking after yourself by talking to friends, family and anyone else in your support network, taking time out and asking for help when you need it.
If you feel that you need more support, you can ask for counselling or other support through your GP. You can also access a private counsellor or therapist if this is an affordable option for you.
More information and advice
- Our Parents Helpline provides free, confidential support and advice to parents and carers who are concerned about their child's mental health. We're open Monday-Friday from 9.30am-4pm on 0808 802 5544
- A parent’s A-Z guide to specific mental health issues, including self-harm, anxiety, depression and domestic violence
- Parents survival guide
- Videos sharing top tips on anger, anxiety, challenging behaviour and other issues
If you’re under 19 you can confidentially call, chat online or email about any problem big or small.
Can provide a BSL interpreter if you are deaf or hearing-impaired.
Hosts online message boards where you can share your experiences, have fun and get support from other young people in similar situations.
Phone: 0800 1111
Opening times: 9am - midnight, 365 days a year
YoungMinds Crisis Messenger
Provides free, 24/7 text support for young people across the UK experiencing a mental health crisis.
All texts are answered by trained volunteers, with support from experienced clinical supervisors.
Texts are free from EE, O2, Vodafone, 3, Virgin Mobile, BT Mobile, GiffGaff, Tesco Mobile and Telecom Plus.
Texts can be anonymous, but if the volunteer believes you are at immediate risk of harm, they may share your details with people who can provide support.
Text: YM to 85258
Opening times: 24/7
Youth Wellbeing Directory
Lists local services where you can find support for young people’s mental health and wellbeing.