Clinical update

Supporting children after a traumatic event

Read our summary of new guidance issued by the Institute of Health Visiting on supporting children and families after a traumatic event.

Read our summary of new guidance issued by the Institute of Health Visiting on supporting children and families after a traumatic event

After a traumatic event, between 10% and 30% of children develop PTSD.
 Picture: iStock

Essential facts

More than two thirds of children will have experienced at least one traumatic event by the time they are 16 years old. Traumatic events are either direct or indirect experiences that put a person or someone close to them at risk of serious harm or death. They include road accidents, experiencing or witnessing violence or abuse, serious illnesses and fires. Rare examples include natural disasters, such as earthquakes, floods or hurricanes, or a terrorist attack or conditions of war.

What’s new

In July, the Institute of Health Visiting (iHV) published resources to help professionals support families and children after a traumatic event. Developed with the Mental Health Foundation, the good practice points provide evidence-based information. Advice includes sharing knowledge of children’s normal responses to trauma, encouraging parents to support their children in the short term, and being vigilant about any signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Signs and symptoms

In common with adults, each child will react differently to a traumatic event. While their reaction may depend slightly on age and developmental stage, all are likely to experience a range of changes in their thinking, emotions, behaviour and physical responses. These may include finding it hard to sleep, having temper tantrums or being overly clingy. They may also become preoccupied with thoughts of the event, experience nightmares or worry it will happen again. For most, symptoms will not continue beyond a few weeks, but between 10% and 30% develop PTSD, which can have long-term adverse effects.

How you can help your patient

Reassure worried parents that emotional, physical and behavioural reactions are to be expected, and for most children are usually short-term. Should any changes continue after a month or so, it’s an opportunity to seek further psychological assessment and support. Guide parents to look after themselves and their partner too.

Expert comment

smithFiona Smith, RCN professional lead for children and young people’s nursing

‘For children, witnessing a traumatic event doesn’t have to mean something dramatic and headline-grabbing. It can be seeing your school friend injured on the sports pitch and having to be carried off, as that may not be something you’ve ever seen before.

‘Although it’s been produced by the Institute of Health Visiting, the guidance is very helpful for all professional groups supporting children and young people, particularly as it is highlighting good practice.

‘Key points for nursing staff include listening to children and also to what parents’ concerns might be, and reassuring them. Talking to parents privately, away from the child, can help them to express anxieties, whether their own or their child’s. Also, guiding parents to look after themselves is important. Providing support to the parents will benefit the child.’

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