Helping Children Cope After a Traumatic Event

Guides

How to Help Children Ages 2-5

At this age, although children are making big developmental advances, they still depend on parents to nurture them. As with babies, they typically respond to situations according to
how parents react. If you are calm and confident, your child will feel more secure. If you act anxious or overwhelmed, your child may feel unsafe.

Typical reactions of children ages 2 to 5:

  • Talking repeatedly about the event or pretending to “play” the event
  • Tantrums or irritable outbursts
  • Crying and tearfulness
  • Increased fearfulness—often of the dark, monsters, or being alone
  • Increased sensitivity to sounds like thunder, wind, and other loud noises
  • Disturbances in eating, sleeping and toileting
  • Believing that the disaster can be undone
  • Excessive clinging to caregivers and trouble separating
  • Reverting to early behavior like baby talk, bed-wetting and thumb-sucking

What you can do:

  • Make your child feel safe. Hold, hug and cuddle your child as much as possible. Tell her you will take care of her when she feels sad or scared. With children who are learning to talk, use simple phrases such as “Mommy’s here.”
  • Watch what you say. Little children have big ears and may pick up on your anxiety, misinterpret what they hear, or be frightened unnecessarily by things they do not understand.
  • Maintain routines as much as possible. No matter what your living situation, do your best to have regular mealtimes and bedtimes. If you are homeless or have been relocated, create new routines. Try to do the things you have always done with your children, such as singing songs or saying prayers before they go to sleep.
  • Give extra support at bedtime. Children who have been through trauma may become anxious at night. When you put your child to bed, spend more time than usual talking or telling stories. It’s okay to make a temporary arrangement for young children to sleep with you, but with the understanding that they will go back to normal sleeping arrangements at a set future date.
  • Do not expose kids to the news. Young children tend to confuse facts with fears. They may not realize that the images they see on the news aren’t happening again and again. They should also not listen to the radio.
  • Encourage children to share feelings. Try a simple question such as, “How are you feeling today?” Follow any conversations about the recent event with a favorite story or a family activity to help kids feel more safe and calm.
  • Enable your child to tell the story of what happened. This will help her make sense of the event and cope with her feelings. Play can often be used to help your child frame the story and tell you about the event in her own words.
  • Draw pictures. Young children often do well expressing emotions with drawing. This is another opportunity to provide explanations and reassurance. To start a discussion, you may comment on what a child has drawn.
  • If your child acts out it may be a sign she needs extra attention. Help her name how she feels: Scared? Angry? Sad? Let her know it is okay to feel that way, then show her the right way to behave—you can say, “It’s okay to be angry, but it is not okay to hit your sister.”
  • Get kids involved in activities. Distraction is a good thing for kids at this age. Play games with them, and arrange for playtime with other kids.
  • Talk about things that are going well. Even in the most trying times, it’s important to identify something positive and express hope for the future to help your child recover. You can say something like, “We still have each other. I am here with you, and I will stay with you.” Pointing out the good will help you feel better, too.

How to help kids ages 2 to 5 cope with the death of a loved one:

  • Speak to them at their level. Use similar experiences to help children understand, such as the death of a pet or changes in flowers in the garden.
  • Provide simple explanations. For example, “When someone dies, we can’t see them anymore but we can still look at them in pictures and remember them.”
  • Reassure your children. They might feel what happened is their fault, somehow; let them know it is not.
  • Expect repeated questions. That is how young children process information.

Download a PDF version of this guide