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A traumatic event is a shocking, scary, or dangerous experience that affects someone emotionally. Crisis can be anything from a medical trauma, death of a loved one, suicide, community violence, domestic violence, or even a natural disaster. It is important to remember that every individual and child responds to trauma and crisis differently. For parents and caregivers, knowing how to help yourself and your child process and work through a traumatic event can be difficult. 

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Responses to Trauma

It is normal for people to experience emotional and physical aftershocks or stress reactions following a traumatic event. People at risk for secondary trauma are those (other than the victim/s) who are affected by the event, including friends, family, acquaintances, or people who have simply heard about the trauma. 

There are many different responses to potentially traumatic events. These can be immediate, and may last for several weeks or months after. Normal responses to trauma include:
  • Feeling anxious, sad, or angry
  • Depression
  • Trouble concentrating and sleeping
  • Continually thinking about what happened
For most people, these are normal and expected responses that will generally lessen with time. However, in some cases the stressful post-trauma thoughts and feelings continue for a longer period of time and interfere with one's daily life. It is important for people who continue to feel the effects of trauma to seek professional help.

Signs that someone may need help:
  • Worrying a lot or feeling anxious, sad, or fearful
  • Crying often
  • Having trouble thinking clearly
  • Having frightening thoughts or reliving the experience
  • Feeling angry
  • Having nightmares or difficulty sleeping
  • Avoiding places or people that bring back disturbing memories and responses
  • Using drugs and/or alcohol as a coping mechanism 
Physical responses to trauma can also indicate a person needs help. Signs include:
  • Headaches
  • Stomach pain and digestive issues
  • Feeling tired
  • Racing heart and sweating
  • Being very jumpy and easily startled

How to Cope

  • Recognize your own feelings, and understand that your feelings are a normal reaction to an abnormal situation
  • Talk about the experience. Talking is healing
  • Reach out to friends and family for support. Connect with others through support groups
  • Take one day at a time and be kind to yourself
  • Exercise or learn meditation and relaxation techniques
  • Structure your time. Schedule breaks for yourself. Redefine your priorities and focus your energy on them
  • Get involved in something that is personally meaningful and important
  • Give yourself time to heal
  • Give someone a hug

How to Help Family and Friends Cope

  • Listen and empathize. Be supportive and non-judgemental
  • Offer and ask for support from family, friends, and community
  • Give yourself and your family time to heal at their own pace. Make healing a family issue.
  • Reassure children and reinforce feelings of safety
  • Validate each other. Show appreciation, give hugs and offer praise
  • Use rituals that can reaffirm family bonds and help the healing process
  • After time has passed, talk about how each person has grown as a result of the experience 

Source: National Institute of Mental Health. (2017). Coping with Traumatic Events. Retrieved July 13, 2017 from

Tips for Caregivers: 5 Ways to Talk to Your Child After a Crisis

  1. First, find out what your child or student knows about the event.  Children often hear the news from social media, older siblings, or classmates. The child's perception of what has happened may be very different from the reality.
  2. Reassure the child that it is ok to talk about sad or scary events and to ask questions. It is also ok to admit to feeling sad, scared, or angry and to acknowledge that you are having those feelings too.  For both kids and adults, it is easier to cope with a crisis if they feel they understand it, so encourage questions now and in the future.
  3. Talk about the people who are helping and reassure the child that he or she is safe.  Explain that events like these are very rare and talk about the many people who work every day to keep kids safe, such as police officers, teachers, or the school principal.  Let the child know that even though bad things happen, the world has many good people who want to help. 
  4. Get close.  Extra physical affection, like hugs or snuggling up together with a book, goes a long way towards providing an inner feeling of safety.  The closeness can also help you to manage your own stress so that you can continue to be a comfort to your child. 
  5. In sharing information, be honest, but be mindful of the child's age.   Remember that children may be listening to adult conversations.

Early elementary school. Children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that their school and homes are safe and that adults are there to protect them. Give simple examples of school safety like reminding children about exterior doors being locked, child monitoring efforts on the playground, and emergency drills practiced during the school day.

Upper elementary and early middle school. Children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school. They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. Discuss efforts of school and community leaders to provide safe schools.

Upper middle school and high school. Students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence in schools and society. They will share concrete suggestions about how to make school safer and how to prevent tragedies in society. Emphasize the role that students have in maintaining safe schools by following school safety guidelines (e.g. not providing building access to strangers, reporting strangers on campus, reporting threats to the school safety made by students or community members, etc.), communicating any personal safety to school administrators, and accessing support for emotional needs.

Additional Resources

Mental health problems can be treated. If you or someone you know needs help, talk with your health care provider. If you are unsure of where to go for help visit the National Institute of Mental Health Illness Help

Click here for more information on how to talk to your child after a crisis. 

For a complete list of crisis hotline numbers CLICK HERE

Suicide Trauma

Crisis TEXT Line: Text "CONNECT" to 741741 for Confidential Suicide Prevention Text Support 

Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

It's Up to Us- San Diego: Suicide Prevention & Support

Click here for: Reactions to Suicide & Other Trauma - What's normal & when to seek support

Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide: Parents

Other Crisis Resources An Online Crisis Network

Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255 Press 1 or Text to 838255

American Red Cross

National Child Traumatic Stress Network

Responding to School Crisis